Some of the country’s top universities need to do more to encourage black and minority ethnic (BME) students to take up prestigious courses, a new Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Policy Brief will warn today (Tuesday 15 August).

For certain subjects, most significantly medicine, dentistry and veterinary sciences, the brief suggests that a much greater focus is needed on ethnic diversity among students. Whilst some ethnic groups are over-represented compared to their share of the overall UK population for these courses, for 2014/15, only 0.3 per cent of all new students starting out on medical or dentistry courses were Black Caribbean - a total of just 25 across the entire UK.

For the same year, intake for veterinary sciences was nearly 95 per cent white; fewer than 50 students starting out on new veterinary courses for 2014/15 came from non-white backgrounds.

Implications for social mobility

The researchers behind the IPR Policy Brief suggest that such enormous inequalities in ethnic composition for key professional degrees has significant implications for social mobility. They also argue these statistics pose challenges for the future make-up of professions, most notably medicine if its workforce is to reflect the diversity of the people and communities they serve.

Other courses that face particular challenges in achieving a greater diversity in students include those in the creative arts. Even in otherwise diverse universities located in ethnically diverse cities, these courses stand out for their low ethnic mix. The report suggests London’s elite arts institutions in particular are failing to reflect the diversity of the city in which they are located. In order to diversify the arts sector and avoid a future white-dominated ‘high culture’, change is needed in recruiting practices they suggest.

The IPR Policy Brief highlights that the most ethnically diverse universities tend to be those in and around London. Yet there is a disparity in the split of students attending universities in ethnically-diverse cities, in particular those in the Midlands.

The University of Birmingham and University of Leicester, for example, are both over 10 per cent whiter than their surrounding cities. Birmingham City University, Aston University and De Monfort University, by comparison, are much closer, and sometimes much more ethnically mixed than their local areas.

Their findings show that across the board, students from white-dominated neighbourhoods go on to attend the least diverse universities for ethnic mix. This, say the authors, points to divisions in the ethnic composition of UK universities and throws up challenges for HE leaders around access, equality and social mobility. Recruitment responses must ‘go beyond lip-service’, they argue.

Project lead and ESRC Future Research Leader, Dr Michael Donnelly from the University's Department of Education, said: “Our analyses show that universities themselves differ markedly in their ethnic diversity. This is creating barriers to social mobility for young people from ethnic minority backgrounds and having significant knock-on effects for the ethnic diversity of key professions.

“The bigger issue this presents is one of the lack of ethnic mixing. If we are to create a more tolerant UK society where people are aware and respectful of cultural and ethnic difference it is vital that greater mixing happens at these early stages in young people's lives.”

Lead author of the report and co-researcher Dr Sol Gamsu added: “The most diverse universities in the UK are less wealthy universities which provide higher education for large numbers of first-generation university students. Beyond diversifying elite institutions and desirable courses, racial justice in higher education requires the transformation of the hierarchy of universities to avoid the concentration of resources in institutions dominated by the white middle-class.”

Key findings

  • Students from the most and least diverse neighbourhoods tend to attend university with a similar level of ethnic mix.
  • Very few students from largely white-dominated areas attend the most diverse universities. By comparison, over half of students from the most diverse neighbourhoods attend the most diverse universities.
  • Students from ethnically-diverse neighbourhoods in London worry about studying outside the capital on grounds of racism.

IPR policy recommendations include a specific focus for courses that are under-represented, such as medicine, and doing more to diversify recruitment, in particular for prestigious arts institutions. They also propose a renewed focus on teaching students from white-dominated areas more about race and ethnicity in order to help create more welcoming, inclusive university environments.

Widening participation in HE

The report is part of a new programme of research pioneered by the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research on public policy economics with a particular focus on widening participation in higher education. The work is led by Dr Matt Dickson.

He said: “Widening participation in HE is about more than just ensuring that those with the ability to benefit from HE are able to access it. For the good of society, it is necessary that students from different classes and ethnic backgrounds learn together in the same institutions, rather than having a system that funnels young BME students or those from lower socio-economic backgrounds into certain institutions and the white middle-class into others.

“Our programme of research at the IPR will help us to better understand how to ensure that the system promotes diversity and inclusion in all our HE institutions and that all students are able to fully exploit the opportunities at university and go on to make the most of their abilities post-HE.”