Author: Arif Mahmud, Project Officer – University of Portsmouth 

In light of the recent headlines (Guardian, 2017) revealing stark inequalities in British higher education, this blog presents some of the existing national gaps by the numbers relevant to the Changing Mindsets project, highlighting inequalities in Higher education (HE) for the two student groups on which this project is focused: Black Minority Ethnic (BME) students and low socio-economic backgrounds students. It should be noted that one of the limitations of the numbers discussed in this post is that the data is not usually explored intersectionally (Christoffersen, 2017; Crenshaw, 1989) with some exceptions (for example: ECU, 2017). Nevertheless, these numbers provide insight into some of the inequalities that we are working towards tackling through this project.

The first number to highlight in this blog post is zero. One of the five project partners involved in Changing Mindsets, the University of the Arts London, has set the goal of fully closing the attainment gap between British BME and British white students:

“By 2022 the percentage of first degree home Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students achieving a 1st or 2:1 will be the same as for first degree home white students (UAL, 2016, p. 13)”

The target of fully closing the attainment gap sets the bar high for other UK universities to follow suit. There is no level of inequality that should be acceptable, so zero percent is the only target that should be sought.

Admissions Gaps

Despite being more likely than their white British counterparts to enrol in higher education generally (Modood, 2012), British students from BME backgrounds continue to be strikingly under-represented in the UK’s most prestigious universities (Boliver, 2016). The admissions gap has once again recently hit national headlines with Oxford university being accused of ‘social apartheid’ with nearly one in three Oxford colleges failing to admit a single black British A-Level student in 2015 (Guardian, 2017). This is exasperated further by the fact that “when applicants from BME backgrounds apply to Oxford University or to Russell Group universities more generally, they are substantially less likely to be offered places than white applicants with comparable A-level qualifications” (Boliver, 2016).

Attainment Gaps

Research carried out by Broecke & Nicholls for the then Department for Education and Skills (Dfes) found that students from BME and low socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to achieve first-class degrees (first/2:1) than White students even after controlling for other factors such as prior attainment, age, gender, discipline and type of institution (Broecke & Nicholls, 2007; Mountford-Zimdars et al, 2015). It is through Broecke & Nicholls’ (2007) calculations that we understand the achievement gap.

The BME degree attainment gap in the UK was 15% based on 2015/16 Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data (down from 18.8% in 2005/06). 78.4% of white students received a first/2:1 compared with 63.4% of BME students. The gap was largest in England, where 78.8% of white students received a first/2:1 compared with 63.2% of BME students (ECU, 2017). The attainment gap for students from the least advantaged backgrounds (based on the POLAR 3 classification, quintile 1) is 14% in comparison with those from the most advantaged quintile (specifically, 45% of POLAR 3/Quintile 1 students were awarded a first or 2:1, while 59% of those from the most advantaged quintile did so). Students from the lowest HE participation areas (quintile 1) are least likely to get a degree and go into a job. Only around two-fifths (41%) got a degree and went on to a graduate level job or further study (Mountford-Zimdars et al, 2015).

As mentioned by Broecke & Nicholls (2007) prior qualification, although a key factor in degree outcomes, does not explain the differences between ethnic groups. Taking into account prior qualifications, BME students are less likely to gain a first or upper-second degree. For example, 72% of white students who entered HE with BBB at A-level gained a first or upper second. This compares with 56% for Asian students, and 53% for black students entering with the same A-level grades (Mountford-Zimdars et al, 2015).

Withdrawal Gaps

Black students are 50% more likely to drop out of university in England than their White and Asian peers (UPP Foundation and Social Market Foundation, 2017). 8.8% of students from low socio-economic backgrounds withdraw from university compared with less than 5% withdrawal rates among students from the most advantaged backgrounds (OFFA, 2017).

Progression to Further Study Gaps

Around 8% of white student’s progress to taught degrees and 2% to research degrees, whereas the corresponding figures for Black-Caribbean students are 5% and 0.3% (Wakeling and Hampden-Thompson, 2013).  Graduates from low socio-economic backgrounds are slightly underrepresented among those progressing to higher degrees and have slightly lower rates of progression than those from more advantaged backgrounds, particularly for research degrees (Wakeling and Hampden-Thompson, 2013).

Employment and Income Gaps

Working class students are less likely to be employed in as high paying jobs as their middle class peers after graduation (Ashley et. al. 2015; Wakeling and Savage, 2015).  Similarly, findings from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey, analysed by the Trade Union Congress (2016), showed that “the pay gap between all black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers with degrees and white graduates is 10.3%”. However, the figure is significantly worse for black graduates specifically, as findings showed that Black workers with degrees earn 23.1% less on average than white workers with degrees”.

These numbers shed light on some of the persistent inequalities within British higher education for these two student groups. In addition to the numbers, there are complex experience gaps reported by students (such as being treated differently in the classroom based on their identity) that are harder to quantify (for example, please see: NUS, 2011). There are also a number of studies that explore inequalities faced by other student populations (for example withdrawal rates of mature students (HEFCE, 2017), or declining numbers of part-time students (HESA, 2016).

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.


Ashley, L., Duberley, J., Sommerlad, H., & Scholarios, D. (2015). A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions.

Broecke, S and Nicholls T. (2007). Ethnicity and Degree Attainment. DfeS Research Report RW92. London: DfES.

Boliver, V. (2016). Exploring ethnic inequalities in admission to Russell Group universities. Sociology50(2), 247-266.

Cristoffersen, A. (2017). Intersectional approaches to equality research and data. London: Equality Challenge Unit.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. U. Chi. Legal F., 139.

ECU. (2017). Equality in higher education: statistical report 2017, London: Equality Challenge Unit.

The Guardian, 2017 –

HEFCE. (2017). Higher Education in 2016/17: Key Facts

HESA. (2016). Students Characteristics 2015/16.

Modood T (2012) Capitals, ethnicity and higher education. In: Basit TN and Tomlinson S (eds)

Social Inclusion and Higher Education. Bristol: The Policy Press, 17–40.

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sabri, D., Moore, J., Sanders, J., Jones, S., & Higham, L. (2015). Causes of differences in student outcomes.

NUS. (2011). Race for equality

OFFA. (2017). Outcomes of access agreement monitoring.

Social Market Foundation. (2017) On course for success? Student retention at university. Retrieved from

Trade Union Congress. (2016). Black workers with degrees earn a quarter less than white counterparts [Press release]. Retrieved from

Wakeling, P., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2013). Transition to Higher Degrees across the UK: An Analysis of National, Institutional and Individual Differences. HEA Research Series. Higher Education Academy.

Wakeling, P., & Savage, M. (2015). Entry to elite positions and the stratification of higher education in Britain. The Sociological Review63(2), 290-320.

Further reading:

Reay, D. (2017). Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes. Policy Press.

Gabriel, G and Tate, S. A. (In press). Inside the ivory tower. Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia. Trentham Books.

Alexander, C. E., & Arday, J. (Eds.). (2015). Aiming higher: Race, inequality and diversity in the academy. Runnymede.

The Gaps by the Numbers
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