23 Jul 2014

Universities give fewer places to ethnic minorities – still?

Universities are less likely to offer a place to black and ethnic minority students than comparable white British students, research finds – and it probably has not improved much since 2008.

Student in library

Universities are less likely to offer a place to black and ethnic minority students than comparable white British students, research from the London School of Economics (LSE) has found.

The study looked at 50,000 Ucas applications from 2008 and found that applicants from non-mixed race minority ethnic groups were significantly less likely to be offered a university place than white applicants. The research took into account academic results, social class, sex and type of school attended.

Universities have pointed out that the figures are six years old and say the situation has improved considerably since then – but research by Channel 4 News suggests it not have actually have changed very much at all.

When shown this data, the study’s author Dr Mike Shiner said it suggested little had improved since his initial study.

In the original research, the team found that on average, Pakistani candidates received seven fewer offers for every 100 applications than equivalent white British applicants. Applicants from other groups, including Indian, Black Caribbean and Chinese backgrounds, were also less likely to receive offers than white British candidates.

However, candidates from mixed race groups did not appear to be disadvantaged compared to white British candidates. The report suggests this could be down to direct discrimination on the basis of candidates’ names. The research also highlighted how candidates from lower social class groups were less likely to receive offers than their more privileged counterparts.

Channel 4 News has looked at more recent data which suggests the situation now is not very different to what was happening in 2008. This data, from the University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) does not compare students with similar backgrounds and the same A-level grades, but it does show there is still a large difference between acceptance rates for black and white British applicants.

Dr Mike Shiner, one of the authors of the LSE report, told Channel 4 News: “After taking account for academic attainment and other factors, we found that candidates from less privileged backgrounds, state schools and certain BME (black and minority ethnic) candidates appeared to receive fewer offers for a university place.”

He said the more recent data suggested there had been little progress: “It’s indicative of what we’ve found. There’s so much else potentially going on, but that said, if not much has changed that suggests what we found is still happening.”

NUS Black Students’ officer Malia Bouattia said the findings came as no surprise.

“If black students are getting the same grades as their white peers, then those students should be given a fair chance to fulfil their potential and this must be recognised in all admissions processes,” she said.

“We have a long way to go to close the gaps for black students in education and if universities are truly opposed to discrimination they should make some serious changes in admissions and procedures.”

‘Complex and challenging issue’

A spokesman for Universities UK said the HE sector “accepts there are some points that need to be addressed” but that programmes set up to tackle inequality take time to have an effect.

He said: “This is a complex and challenging issue which universities are actively addressing. Offer rates are largely explained by applicants’ previously attained grades and the course’s popularity, but factors such as subject choice at A-level, information advice and guidance received and patterns of application by subject are all factors that can play a role.

“Universities are aware that more work is required to better understand why some differences still occur.”

Dr Shiner told Channel 4 News that some experts had suggested removing names from applications could help solve the problem.

“Removing names doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but there’s no cost for doing it. Universities are used to anonymous marking already, and this would help them to demonstrate fairness and say they were making decision based purely on the quality of the application,” he said.

Whilst the report suggested evidence of discrimination, Dr Shiner is wary of putting off applicants.

“BME students still access higher education in very good numbers, so I certainly wouldn’t want people to be discouraged from applying based on these findings,” he said.