Universities are failing to adequately support ethnic minority students in their academic studies and in their search for graduate employment, a report to ministers suggests.
Research led by the Institute for Employment Studies has found that although ethnic minority people are more likely than their white peers to enter higher education, they are less likely to get a good class of degree or a job postgraduation.
A report on the findings prepared for the Department for Education and Skills says that even when background and other factors known to affect class of degree are taken into account, students from ethnic minority groups on average perform less well than white students.
In 2001-02, 6 per cent of ethnic minority students in England gained a first-class degree compared with more than 10 per cent of white students, and 36 per cent were awarded an upper-second compared with nearly 49 per cent of their white peers.
This is despite the fact that students from these groups do comparatively well in gaining access to higher education. They make up a higher share of the undergraduate population in England (16 per cent) than of the working population (9 per cent), and initial participation rates of students from various ethnic groups in higher education range from 39 per cent to 70 per cent, against 38 per cent for white students.
Once they attempt to enter the labour market, ethnic minority graduates again appear to be disadvantaged. More than 11 per cent of such students who graduated from full-time degree courses at English institutions in 2001-02 were unemployed, compared with 6 per cent of white graduates.
The report says that the IES research has shown that much of the apparent relative under-achievement of ethnic minority students can be due to factors such as age, gender, subject and institution chosen, which can affect degree class.
There are also likely to be other explanations such as the fact that students from these groups tend to spend more time in paid work during term. Other possible factors include financial and personal circumstances, choice of course and parental influences.
More research is needed on the impact of each of these factors on academic performance, it adds.
Helen Connor, IES associate fellow who led the research, said it appeared that the fact that ethnic minority students were more likely to enter higher education through "non-traditional" routes and with qualifications other than A levels was significant.
"It can mean that while they gain entry to higher education, they do not necessarily get onto a course they can cope with or that is right for them," she said.
Entry qualifications and access routes also tend to affect choice of institution, and all of these can impact on employment prospects.
Ms Connor said that while institutions were trying to address the problem, progress was slow because the issues were complex.
"The actions they are taking may be aimed generally at ethnic groups or students from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than the sub-groups that we have found are having the most difficulties," she said.
Michelle Codrington, Black students officer for the National Union of Students, said institutions were not providing enough support for ethnic minority students. She said: "We are not saying they always need someone to hold their hand, but they do need to have a support network that is not just geared towards the white middle-class student."