Race and racism, diversity and equal opportunities are words that are bandied around a lot in higher education and a recent study has bought them again to the fore. The study has unearthed a widening gap between the proportion of black and minority ethnic students achieving firsts and 2:1s at university, and the proportion of white students that do.

Based on 1.8 million students living in the UK the study was done by independent charity, the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), established to promote equality in higher education. The ECU analysed official data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency from 2003-4 to 2007-8 – the latest figures available.

The study found that in 2003-4, 63.1% of white students obtained a first or 2:1 in their undergraduate degrees compared to 35.5% of black students (but not those who described themselves as mixed race). By 2007-8, 66.4% of white students obtained either a first or 2:1 while the number of black students had risen to 37.7%. Nevertheless, despite the increase, the attainment gap between the two groups had widened by 1.1%.

The is echoed in the achievement of Asian students who rose from a 46.9% proportion of students obtaining firsts and 2:1s in 2003-4, to 48.8% in 2007-8, but who registered an increase of 1.4% in the attainment gap. The difference between white and Asian achievements had grown from 16.2 percentage points to 17.6 percentage points.

The comparisons are equally stark when it comes to firsts alone. In 2007-08, 14.7% of white students achieved a first, compared with 4.2% of black students and 8.2% of Asian students, the study found.

All this is despite a growing proportion of black and Asian students in education. Between 2003-04 and 2007-08, the proportion of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (BME) increased from 14.9% to 17.2%. The proportion of black students rose from 4.4% to 5.4%, while the proportion of Asian students climbed from 8.1% to 8.5%.

Next to England’s ethnicity profile this figures don’t seem so bad. The Office for National Statistics quoted 83.6% of the population of England as white British in 2007, while 5.8% were Asian and 2.8% were black. 1.5% were of Chinese origin.

Still, Levi Pay, ECU’s interim policy director, says more must be done to encourage BME student applications. He says the growing attainment gap is especially troubling.

“Universities and colleges need to focus on whether their policies and practices are actually widening the gap or are effectively narrowing it,” Pay says. “Institutions need to reflect, for example, on whether their curricula, assessment methods, support services and even the extra-curricular activities they support are genuinely inclusive and fair.”

“We would like to see more target-setting in terms of the proportion of BME staff and students at each university”, he continues.

Bellavia Ribeiro, the NUS’s black students’ officer agrees not enough is being done. However, Nick Foskett, dean of the faculty of law, arts and social sciences at the University of Southampton, says we should look at the wider picture. “While there has been little or no ‘closing of the gap’, the attainment of white, Asian and black students has gone up more or less proportionately,” he says.

There are also problems raised by reductive studies. Julie Tolley, an education consultant for Oakleigh Consulting showed some students of Indian and Chinese descent performed particularly well at university, which, she says, means other BME groups are performing exceptionally badly.

Other factors should also be considered, such as the proportional age groups, subject areas and full or part-time status of the respective groups, she argues. Others have argued that the different cultural learning styles of some students should be considered and researched.

On the other hand, Floya Anthias, professor of sociology and social justice at Roehampton, cites evidence which suggests BME students are more likely to come from lower socio-economic groups than white students. She said; “There is much evidence to show that the lower socio-economic categories perform less well in terms of degree results. If students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more represented, then this may show up in terms of lower attainment.”

The University of Oxford has responded to calls for greater ethnic diversity by funding two scholarships for Aboriginal Australian students. It is opening applications from next month. The university said although it had a significant number of students from Australia, an indigenous Australian had never studied there.

The scholarships will pay for tuition fees, air fares and living expenses over a three-year period.

On the other hand, an Indian student at Aberdeen University has submitted a complaint to the university alleging racial prejudice in the marking of her work. Katherine Ross, President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities at Aberdeen University Students’ Association, said she could not comment on the ongoing case. However, she said; “The university and AUSA take all accusations of racism very seriously and that a thorough investigation is taking place. The AUSA is supportive of any student who feels they have been discriminated against and will work with them and the university to ensure that no student feels that they are a victim of discrimination.”

Even the University of Sussex is not without criticism. At the entrance to the university, one African student pointed out, most students are greeted in their national tongue. Yet there is no African language represented. The student suggested the Kiswahili word ‘Karibu’, meaning welcome, would suffice; a linguistic by-product of interaction between coastal Africans and Arab traders in the eighteenth century.

“Obviously much needs to be done to minimise the gap between BME and white students,” one 3rd-year English student said, “But you can’t please everybody.”

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