White British children are significantly less likely to go to university than young people from ethnic minorities, according to research which suggests lower aspirations may be to blame.
A government-commissioned study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, among learners who sat their GCSEs in England in 2008, only 32.6 per cent of white British students went to university, lower than any other ethnic group. Chinese and Indian students were more than twice as likely to enrol in higher education, with participation rates of 75.7 per cent and 67.4 per cent respectively.
Some of the differences become particularly stark when socioeconomic background is added to the analysis, according to researchers Claire Crawford, of the University of Warwick as well as the IfS, and Ellen Greaves.
For example, two-thirds of pupils from the poorest group of Chinese families go to university, making them 10 percentage points more likely to go to university than white British pupils from the top socioeconomic quintile.
Given that some ethnic minorities do not tend to do as well at GCSE as white students, the gap in participation with white students widens once prior attainment and other background characteristics are controlled for. Typically, it stands at between 15 and 25 percentage points, with black African students being 35 percentage points ahead.
Worryingly, the gaps appear to be growing. For example, while Chinese students were 10 percentage points ahead of similar white British students in 2003, this had widened to 24 percentage points by 2008, the report says.
The picture is more complex when it comes to highly selective universities, with black Caribbean students being significantly less likely to enrol in one of these institutions than their white British counterparts, the report says.
In contrast, other groups have much higher participation rates. Most strikingly, the proportion of Chinese pupils attending a highly selective institution, 34 per cent, is higher than the proportion of white British students going to any university, and is three times higher than the proportion of white British students going to a selective institution.
The authors say that the data does not allow them to identify what is causing the differences, but they did find that the gaps were particularly pronounced when comparing white British students to ethnic minority students who have English as a second language, and are therefore considered to be more likely to be recent immigrants.
It is often argued that recent immigrants have higher aspirations for their children, and the BIS study “provide[s] some suggestive evidence of a role for aspirations and expectations in driving these differences”, the report says.
In addition, the differences were particularly pronounced when looking at black and ethnic minority students who lived in London, even once prior attainment was controlled for.
Previous studies, however, have found that many black and ethnic minority students do not do as well as their white peers once they get to university.