Rich, white students still do best at university. We must close the gap

Apr 9, 2018 by

More students from underrepresented backgrounds are studying for a degree. The next step is to ensure they do well

Chris Miller –

Universities have been making progress on opening their doors to students from underrepresented backgrounds. But getting in is not enough – getting on is important too. Students from underrepresented groups deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in their studies and to pursue rewarding careers. This is not happening.

New data published by the Office for Students shows that black, Asian or disabled students and students from disadvantaged neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to succeed at university. The differences are stark: the proportion of students who get a first or 2:1 degree is 10 percentage points lower for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds than for their wealthier peers, three points lower for those with a disability than for those without, and 22 and 11 points lower respectively for black and Asian students than for white students.

These disparities are mirrored in graduates’ employment prospects. The proportion of students in graduate-level employment or further study soon after the end of their degrees is four percentage points lower for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds than for those from the least, three points lower for those with a disability than for those without, and five and two points lower for black and Asian students than for white students. These disparities persist even when entry grades and subject choice are accounted for.

The gaps exist for a number of reasons. Students’ sense of belonging is affected by the inclusivity of curricula and learning, teaching and assessment practices, the relationships between majority and minority groups of students, and the different profiles of staff and students. There are also differences in how students from different backgrounds and with different identities experience university life, engage with learning and turn to external support.

There can be practical challenges for students from lower-income backgrounds too. Many live at home rather than on campus, and some have work or caring responsibilities. These disadvantages are compounded by universities’ reticence to acknowledge and address the links between student outcomes and factors such as background, disability and race.

What is the OfS going to do about this? We plan to apply greater pressure than before for every university to reduce the outcome gaps among their students. There will be beefed-up powers, granted through recent legislation, to intervene in more nuanced ways than the previous access regulator. For instance, we will require universities charging the maximum £9,250 fee to submit clear, evidence-based plans that go beyond improving access for underrepresented groups to improving their degree outcomes.

Source: Rich, white students still do best at university. We must close the gap | Chris Millward | Higher Education Network | The Guardian

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