White students gain less from higher education, UK Engagement Survey suggests

Black, Chinese and Asian undergraduates report highest level of skill development

December 10, 2015
Young male student in graduation cap and gown

White students report lower levels of skill development than undergraduates from other ethnic backgrounds, according to the UK Engagement Survey.

The survey results, which include UK and European-domiciled students as well as international learners, show that black undergraduates reported the highest levels of hard and soft skill development, on average.

Asian and Chinese students, and those whose ethnicity was classed as “other”, also reported high levels of improvement.

White students and respondents whose ethnicity was classed as “mixed” reported the lowest levels of development in both hard and soft skills.

Camille Kandiko Howson, senior lecturer in higher education at King’s College London, said that the results might reflect the levels of challenge experienced by students from more diverse backgrounds entering UK higher education.

In the survey, finding a course challenging was closely correlated with reporting hard skill development, and Dr Kandiko Howson said that engagement surveys tended to focus on practices which “help the students who need more help than most”.

“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes report higher gains and greater correlation between engagement and gaining skills,” Dr Kandiko Howson said. “You can almost argue they start from a lower base so gain more from higher education.”

The UKES results provide an interesting contrast to research on degree outcomes conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Focusing on UK-domiciled learners, this found that 76 per cent of white graduates at English universities achieved a first or 2:1 in 2013-14, compared with 60 per cent of black and ethnic minority students. Controllable variables, such as prior attainment, explained only 1 per cent of the gap.

Dr Kandiko Howson said that more research was needed to understand what lay behind the responses of students from different ethnic groups.

“Although these students seem to be doing the right things in higher education, maybe they aren’t doing the things that help them with their grades in a more strategic fashion.”

When male and female students’ UKES responses were compared, no statistically significant differences were found in hard skill development, in any discipline areas.

However, women reported higher levels of soft skill development across all disciplines, with particularly marked differences reported by students following health and social science courses.

The survey found positive correlations between participating in extracurricular and co-curricular activities with skill development, as well as between participating in volunteering and skill development.


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Print headline: Ethnicity and gender: white students report lowest learning gain

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