The recent murder of George Floyd has resulted in an awakening and increased awareness of racial discrimination in all parts of society. Despite much of the coverage being focused on the actions of the police, there are tough questions to be asked about the progression and attainment of minorities in higher education.
This article provides a brief analysis and overview of the existing data on black representation in UK universities.
Black students are actually over-represented in UK universities as a whole, however this tends to be concentrated in less prestigious and less selective universities, which produce less sought-after graduates by employers.
4% of UK 18-24 year olds are black, while black students make up 8% of the entire university student population, however the picture is much more varied when we consider the 24 Russell Group universities which deliver world class research and education; in 2018 just 2.4% of undergraduate admissions at Oxford University were from black African and Caribbean ethnicities. Meanwhile at Queen Mary University black students make up 10% of the student population.
The situation therefore becomes increasingly complex, why is there significantly different black representation across different universities?
A study by the Russell Group found that state school students are less likely than their privately educated counterparts to apply to leading universities with equally good grades, an overwhelming majority of black students are in state schools, so perhaps an issue is that black students are more likely to undervalue themselves when applying to university. More effort is needed to encourage applications to leading universities with better help and advice to improve the increased quality of application (such as personal statements) that these universities require.
The benchmark entry requirements for most courses in Russell Group universities, particularly Oxbridge, is AAA or equivalent at A level, however, black students are the least likely ethnic group to attain 3 A grades or better at A level with just 5.1% achieving this, significantly behind the next worst performing ethnic group, Asian at 10.9%. This does then result in a lower pool of black candidates which the top universities can recruit from, ultimately leading to lower representation.
The driving force behind the sub-par performance is absolutely linked to socioeconomics, a higher proportion of black students live in deprived areas or in low-income households, which has long been known as a significant barrier to academic success. Paradoxically a long-term solution to ensure higher black representation in leading universities and academic success is to seek to alleviate the deprivation of these students, which is often achieved by academic success.
Some leading Russell Group universities, such as the University of Warwick and Bristol University, take part in a widening participation scheme in conjunction with the Sutton Trust to encourage deprived students to apply to their institutions by offering lower grade requirements. Interestingly, studies by these universities shows that students who benefit from this scheme and enter with lower A level grades achieve just as well as their counterparts. Schemes as outlined should be further utilised and explored as a short-term solution.
It is pleasing to see that progress is being made to increase black representation at the highest level of UK universities, however there is ultimately still significant progress to be made to address the structural issues in society which caused this imbalance in the first place.
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BBC Report using ONS and Higher Education Statistics Agency
 Entry Rates into Higher Education – UCAS EoC Report 2018
 Tackling Racial Disparities Report – Russell Group