Non-whites gain lower grades, complain of poor support and are less happy with university life. Tariq Tahir reports
Students from minority ethnic groups not only obtain worse degree results than their white counterparts, they are also significantly less happy with university life, a new study reveals.
Concerns about the lower satisfaction levels of Asian students were raised at a board meeting of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The minutes, released this month, warn that "on a number of scales, students from Asian ethnic groups remain less positive about their course experiences than white students".
The findings - combined with data showing that students across all minority ethnic groups continue to receive lower degree classifications than white students - have raised alarm within Hefce and vice-chancellors' body Universities UK.
Hefce's board was discussing a report examining the results of the 2005 and 2006 National Student Surveys - results for 2007 are out in mid-September.
The NSS revealed that Asian students, including Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani but excluding Chinese students, are less satisfied with academic support, assessment and feedback and personal development compared with white students.
In the "Next steps" conclusion of the July board meeting minutes, Hefce said: "We should focus our efforts on the relative dissatisfaction of ethnic minority students and the relatively low scores in assessment and feedback."
Universities UK said: "Although student satisfaction levels across the board are high, this is an issue of particular concern. Our members want to understand the reasons for differing satisfaction levels, which is why we are working closely with the Higher Education Academy and the Equality Challenge Unit to look into this matter in more detail."
Figures for ethnic-minority achievement were released in answer to a written Parliamentary Question tabled by the Conservatives.
David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said: "I would say that the Government focuses on the numbers getting to university but tends to ignore them once they've arrived."
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said 80 per cent of final-year undergraduates polled were very satisfied or satisfied with the quality of teaching and learning on their courses.
'At many universities, there are more black cleaners than students'
Nick Johnson, the Commission for Racial Equality's director of policy, uses one stark statistic to highlight the failure of elite research-led universities to open their doors to ethnic minority students.
"There are more Afro-Caribbean students at London Metropolitan University than at the whole Russell Group combined. It's an absurd statistic," he said.
Partly this is a result of economic necessity, he said. Many ethnic minority students "tend to come from poorer backgrounds and can't afford to leave home". Instead, they study at their local institution.
But there could be a more sinister issue. "I think the old boys' club is still prominent in higher education, and when you look at the staff at Russell Group universities there's not an awful lot of ethnic minority staff and they tend to have an image as being conservative.
"The Russell Group is the Russell Group because they tend to produce the best results and pride themselves on their academic performance.
"That's why we need to worry about university integration because it's not enough to say 'we've got x per cent going to university'. If ethnic minority students are not going to the universities that are achieving high standards, then you won't get social change."
The figures revealing the relative under-achievement of minority ethnic groups are stark: in 2005-06, 4 per cent of students of Pakistani origin, 5 per cent of students of Bangladeshi origin and 7 per cent of students of Indian origin got a first class degree, compared with 15 per cent of white students.
Black students fared even worse, with 3 per cent of those of Caribbean origin and 4 per cent of those of African origin securing a first.
Ruqayyah Collector, the National Union of Students' black students officer, said the explanation lies in some of the attitudes of staff.
"There is institutional racism in a lot of universities.
"There have been cases when students have handed in work and been asked: 'Did you really do that?'
"At many universities, there are more black cleaners than black students," she added.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said students needed better support, which required improved funding.
'If there are no other asian students it can be very isolating'
For many Asian students, university life, it seems, is not all it could be.
While the levels of satisfaction they express in the National Student Survey are not hugely behind those of white students, they are enough to worry funding chiefs and vice-chancellors.
Ruqayyah Collector, the National Union of Students' black students officer, said many staff did not appreciate the problems facing Asian students.
"The National Student Survey figures are a worry. In my experience, if there are not many other Asian students (on your course) then there can be a lot of isolation and a feeling of not being able to access support.
"A lot of Asian students come from households where they are the first to go to university, so the whole process is new to the family."
Many Asian students came from relatively poor backgrounds and so had to live at home, she said.
The pressure of commuting and possibly having to work as well might be contributing to Asian students not feeling as fulfilled at university.
"There's a lot going on in their lives, and many Asian students, particularly women, might not be comfortable talking to some of the lecturers about it," she added.
Researchers have only recently begun to look at Asian students and their lives in the university system, so many of the answers are far from clear.
But nonetheless the lid is beginning to be lifted from Asians' experiences at university.
Steve Kendall, an associate dean at Bedfordshire University is one of half a dozen academics presenting a paper on minority participation in higher education at the British Educational Research Association next week.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done looking at Asian students' participation in higher education, especially around class," he said. "Many Asian students come from relatively deprived backgrounds, and there might be external pressure from this direction that is contributing to lower levels of satisfaction.
"Speaking to Asian students, there is a feeling they are less involved in some aspects of university life than their white counterparts, and perhaps that manifested itself in the NSS results."