BME students more likely to do master's, but not research

Lack of progression may help to explain BME under-representation in academic workforce

July 14, 2016
Medical student in research lab
Source: iStock

Students from ethnic minorities are more likely to progress into taught postgraduate study than their white classmates, but less likely to advance to a research degree, new analysis shows.

A study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that 14.2 per cent of UK-domiciled black and ethnic minority students who finished their course at an English university in 2009-10 had enrolled on a master’s course within five years of graduation, compared with 12.8 per cent of white graduates.

However, 2.4 per cent of white students had started a research degree within five years of graduation, compared with only 1.3 per cent of their peers from ethnic minorities.

The gap grows over the five-year period, but is already evident within one year of graduation: 7.1 per cent of ethnic minority graduates who finished their course in 2013-14 went straight into a master’s, compared with 6.3 per cent of their white classmates. White graduates, however, were nearly twice as likely to go directly on to a research degree (1.7 per cent compared with 1 per cent).

The data, published on 14 July, suggest that poor progression from taught postgraduate courses may explain in part the continuing under-representation of ethnic minorities in the higher education workforce.

The latest Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) data show that 91.7 per cent of UK academics are white, compared with 86 per cent of the population measured in the 2011 census.

Hefce said that the trends it had identified were largely unchanged when only students with the same undergraduate degree classification were compared, and endured despite the fact that ethnic minority students are significantly more likely to take a science, technology, engineering or mathematics bachelor’s, all disciplines with high rates of transition to postgraduate research.

Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Southampton, said her research indicated that many ethnic minority master’s students felt that there was a “lack of role models” from similar backgrounds to encourage them into a research career.

“Even if BME students do get a PhD, it’s much harder for them to secure a permanent post, because ECU statistics show that BME staff are more likely to be on a fixed-term contract,” said Professor Bhopal. “The promotion prospects once you are in higher education are worse if you are from a BME background.”

The Hefce study also shows that, although UK-domiciled male teenagers are significantly less likely to enrol on an undergraduate degree than their female classmates, male graduates have been consistently more likely to enrol in postgraduate study than their female peers.

Among 2009-10 graduates, 13.7 per cent of men had embarked on a taught postgraduate course within five years, compared with 12.6 per cent of women. Men were nearly twice as likely to enrol on a research degree: 3.1 per cent did so within five years of graduation, compared with 1.6 per cent of women.

This is thought to reflect, in part, the higher proportion of male students on STEM courses.

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