A new study from researchers in our Department of Education, published in the journal Population, Space and Place, explores how the ethnic composition of where students grow up is linked to where they attend university.

Using detailed administrative data on all 412,000 students attending university in the UK from 2014-2015, combined with spatial census data from 2011, the researchers including Dr Sol Gamsu and Dr Michael Donnelly, calculated a "diversity score" for every UK university, which was then compared with the ethnic diversity of the surrounding area.

These scores allowed for an analysis of factors influencing whether students move towards more or less ethnically diverse universities than where they have grown up. Their results suggested that that white students are more likely to move towards a university that is more diverse than their home neighbourhood, whereas ethnic minority students tend to stay at universities that have a similar level of diversity to where they have grown up.

They suggest that these contrasting tendencies may shed light on how race is experienced in contemporary university life.

Lead researcher, Dr Sol Gamsu explained: "This research highlights the huge differences between UK universities in terms of the ethnic diversity of these universities. It shows how elite universities in large cities often do not reflect their ethnically diverse surroundings in their largely white student intake."

"This research also explores how the ethnic diversity of where students grow up is linked to the ethnic diversity of the university they attend."

Dr Michael Donnelly added: “Our research suggests that universities should think about the ethnic mix of their intakes and the kinds of interactions and encounters they are making possible. Creating a more tolerant society depends to some degree on building knowledge and awareness of difference early on in people’s lives through positive encounters. Universities have the potential to be key spaces for this to happen, and we call on them to think beyond access, and to address important questions of mixing within their institution.

The work here on ethnicity builds on a policy brief from the researchers looking at ethnic diversity in higher education published by the University’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR) in summer 2017 ‘Diverse Places of Learning?’.

It was carried out as part of a wider research agenda addressing the geographies of higher education, led by Dr Michael Donnelly from the University and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

This wider programme of work has involved quantitative analysis of large-scale data-sets as well as intensive qualitative fieldwork with over 200 young people from 20 different geographic locations in the UK. The work aims to contribute an important geographic perspective to contemporary debates about social mobility and inequality within higher education.

Study information

  • Title: The spatial dynamics of race in the transition to university: Diverse cities and White campuses in UK higher education
  • Journal: Population, Space and Place
  • DOI: 10.1002/psp.2222