Discrimination in the workplace may play a part in women and ethnic minorities’ greater likelihood of returning to university to seek a postgraduate qualification, a new study suggests.
About one in 10 graduates will exit the labour market to pursue further study within three years of leaving university, but some groups are far more likely to take this route, according to researchers at the University of the West of England.
In analysing the pathways of more than 22,000 graduates who completed a first degree in 2007, they found that women were about 20 per cent more likely than men to be “returners”, all other factors being equal.
Black or minority ethnic graduates were 31 per cent more likely to return to university than white graduates, the analysis of the annual Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey found.
Women who studied science, technology, engineering or maths subjects were 48 per cent more likely than men to return, while black and minority ethnic STEM graduates were also 50 per cent more likely to return than white peers.
The analysis excluded those who undertook a postgraduate qualification immediately, as it is assumed that their studies were a deliberate choice rather than a fallback option following unemployment or dissatisfaction in their job.
Neil Harrison, senior lecturer in education at UWE, who carried out the analysis with co-author Stephen D’Aguiar, said that it was not clear why women or ethnic minorities were more inclined to return to university.
“There is a sense that these groups want more education generally than men or the white majority,” said Dr Harrison, citing the higher undergraduate enrolment rates for women and BME groups.
“They may simply value education more, but they may also fear discrimination and think they need extra qualifications to compete in the workplace. There is enough research to suggest there is discrimination in the workplace – for example, those from Muslim backgrounds find it harder to get a job interview, studies show,” he continued.
Dr Harrison is due to present the study, titled “Returning from earning: UK graduates returning to postgraduate study, with particular respect to STEM subjects, gender and ethnicity”, at the British Education Research Association’s annual conference, which takes place in London from 23-25 September.
He says the high rate of returnees who hold a first or upper second class degree suggests that there are not enough graduate jobs for the growing number of university leavers, with many high achievers seeking additional qualifications to stand out.
Those with a first who are employed in unskilled or semi-skilled work were roughly 50 per cent more likely to return to university than those with a 2.2 doing the same level of work, and twice as likely as those with a third, the study showed.
“If you have a first and you cannot find high-skilled work, the response is to go back to university and get a master’s, whereas those with a 2.2 might think it’s better to stay in a post and work your way up,” said Dr Harrison.
The study also shows that students whose courses included work placements – known as sandwich courses – were half as likely to leave the workplace to pursue postgraduate study.
“Sandwich courses really make you stick in the labour market, which is something we’ve known for years, but this research confirms it,” Dr Harrison said.