The underachievement of black and ethnic minority undergraduates may be explained in part by the intense pressure to succeed that these students face, a study says.
Only 60 per cent of ethnic minority learners at English universities achieved a first or a 2:1 in 2013-14, compared with 76 per cent of their white peers, but a survey of 4,504 UK-domiciled undergraduates at the University of Kent found no evidence to suggest that this could be attributed to lower aspirations.
In fact, 58.3 per cent of ethnic minority respondents were aiming for a first, and 74.3 per cent were confident that they would achieve it, compared with results of 51.9 per cent and 70.6 per cent for white students.
However, only 60.9 per cent of ethnic minority respondents who were confident of achieving a first were currently on course to get a 2:1 or better, the study found, compared with 74.5 per cent of white undergraduates.
The results for black respondents only were even starker: although they had similar levels of positivity, only 46.7 per cent of those who were confident of getting a first were achieving at 2:1 level or above.
Interviews conducted by Alexander Hensby and Lavinia Mitton, of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, indicated that the survey results were unlikely to reflect “cockiness” among ethnic minority students.
Instead, they reflected a feeling that getting a degree below a 2:1 was “not really worth having”, Dr Hensby said – a concern that may be heightened by recognition of the challenges that ethnic minority graduates face in the job market.
The results may also reflect an undergraduate being the first in their family to go to university, or relatives’ significant financial sacrifice and greater emphasis on accessing a high-status and high-reward career such as law or business.
In the survey, 58.3 per cent of ethnic minority respondents had concerns about their academic achievements not meeting their families’ expectations, compared with 45.2 per cent of white students.
The Kent study says that it “bears thinking” about how students “respond when their expectations and attainment first collide through initial assessed work grading and feedback”, particularly because other findings suggested that some ethnic minority students may arrive at university with less of the “academic capital” that is required to succeed.
The survey found that ethnic minority students were more likely to have BTEC qualifications than white undergraduates, as opposed to A levels, and were less likely to have gone to a private school. In interviews, ethnic minority respondents often spoke of being afraid to ask academics for help for fear of coming across as “stupid” or needing “spoon-feeding”.
The study concludes that the combination of unequal access to academic capital and higher expectations of success meant that black students faced pressures “which ultimately affect their attainment in ways that generally apply less for white students”.
“Although high expectations give universities something positive to work with, it is important that these expectations are managed carefully throughout a student’s time at university,” the paper says. “Losing confidence and motivation early in a degree programme may lead to far lower academic attainment in the long run.”
The research was presented at a Kent conference, Closing the Gap: Research and Practice on Black and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment in Higher Education, on 27 June.