Are ethnic minority pupils really more likely to go to university?

IFS study shows the role played by expectation in determining who will go on to further education



A report published yesterday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) revealed that ‘ethnic minorities are substantially more likely to go to university than their White British peers’.

The headline finding is fairly startling, and has both positive and negative implications, as the Telegraph‘s James Kirkup has pointed out.

While it is unambiguously a good thing that ethnic background no longer seems to be a barrier to attainment (at least in parts of the higher education market; see here), the findings show that the poorest White children in the country are missing out on higher education opportunities to an extent that is unparalleled in other demographics.

As Kirkup succinctly put it:

“The overall participation figure for the white British group is being skewed, dragged down by the appalling underperformance of the poorest white British kids. Only 13 per cent of the poorest white British kids go to university. By contrast, 53 per cent of the poorest British Indian kids go to university; 30 per cent of the poorest Black Caribbean kids go to university.”

But there is a problem with the IFS’s headline. As you can see from the quote above, there are big differences between the higher education prospects of different ethnic minority groups too.

There is, for example, a bigger difference between British Indian and Black Caribbean childrens’ chances of university (53 vs 30- see Table 1) than there is between Black Caribbean and White British children (30 vs 13).

The ‘non White’ British are obviously not a homogenous group and this is reflected in the IFS’ findings. While it is certainly significant that White British children come at the bottom of the list, it doesn’t mean that problems do not still exist for children from other backgrounds, and from some backgrounds in particular.

For example:

75.7 per cent of British Chinese children go on to higher education, including 65.5 per cent from the lowest socio-economic quintile.

67.4 per cent of British Indian children go to university, including 53.3 per cent from the lowest socio-economic quintile.

But only 44.7 per cent of British Pakistani children go on to higher education, including 36.4 per cent of the poorest, and 48.8 per cent of British Bangladeshi children, including 45.3 per cent of the poorest.

The IFS notes that pupils from Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are heavily concentrated in lower socio-economic quintiles. 35-40 per cent of pupils from Black and Pakistani backgrounds (and nearly 60 per cent of pupils from Bangladeshi backgrounds) from the 2003 cohort are in the lowest socio-economic group, compared to 18.5 per cent of White British pupils.

This probably partially accounts for the fact that they are less likely to go to university than their Indian and Chinese counterparts. But what I find particularly striking is that socio-economic background is less important in some groups than in others.

There is, for example, a relatively small difference between the higher education prospects of the poorest and richest British Bangladeshi pupils (45.3 per cent and 48.8 per cent respectively), and between the poorest and richest Black African pupils (53.1 per cent and 56.6 per cent respectively.)

By far the biggest difference is between the poorest and richest White British pupils (12.8 and 32.6). Class still has huge significance for the White British, presenting an obstacle which, if the IFS figures are right, is harder to scale than the significant ones thrown up by race.

James Kirkup writes that the poor White children he knew growing up simply didn’t consider university an option: “University was for other people, not something they did.” This observation possibly sheds some light on disparity between different ethnic minorities – perhaps British Pakistani children ‘see themselves’ at university less than British Chinese ones do.

There are all sorts of issues of representation and unconscious prejudice at play here, which I am probably not best placed to analyse. There is also the fact that ethnic minorities may be marginalised in other ways, making them less likely to identify along class lines.

But the IFS study suggests to me that, in 2015, White British pupils are still much more acutely aware of their class status than children from other communities.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

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