Universities’ prized league table positions may be under threat if they fail to tackle ethnic disparities among students, and in staff recruitment and research, as part of an initiative announced by the government.
The effort to “explain or change” ethnic disparities is the latest official attempt to help underrepresented groups enter and succeed in higher education in England, backed by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education.
The announcement by David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister, calls for league table compilers to be encouraged to include each university’s outcomes for underrepresented groups, including degree classes and graduation rates, raising the prospect that institutions could be marked down if they fail to match the efforts of their peers.
The Office for Students, which regulates higher education in England, is also developing a new website for those applying to university, with a focus on encouraging applications from those who are less likely to go on to higher education.
“These ethnic disparities in higher education cannot be tackled overnight, but I look forward to seeing meaningful and sustained progress in the higher education sector in the next few years,” Lidington said.
Matt Waddup, the head of policy for the University and College Union, questioned the announcement, saying: “What is the government going to do to help young people understand and negotiate more data on another website? Will the government commit to providing decent independent information, advice and guidance to young people to help them make the best choice about their future? How will the government monitor its efforts?”
The initiative was welcomed by Valerie Amos, the director of Soas University of London. “We’ve done so well getting more black and minority ethnic students into university. You can’t then have a situation where they get to university and the situation is so challenging for them that either they leave – a lot do leave – or that they get worse grades than their counterparts,” Lady Amos told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Everything that we can do to help us as universities to work to make a difference is important. I also think the sharing of what works and what doesn’t work between university is crucial. I think we must work closely with our students on this.”
Amos said the tiny number of black professors in English universities was a scandal but that some universities had succeeded in improving outcomes for minority ethnic students, in particular the University of Birmingham and Kingston University London.
Lidington is to visit King’s College London, considered an example of an institution taking steps to address under-representation. Edward Byrne, the president of the university, said it had lowered the gap between black and minority ethnic students awarded first and upper second-class degrees to less than 4% compared with other students.
“I am proud of the diverse international community we have here at King’s. In 2017-18, 49% of our undergraduates were from black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds, and we have the fastest-growing population of low-income students in the Russell Group,” Byrne said.
Although the government’s announcement talks of “putting pressure on university league tables to include progress in tackling access and attainment disparities”, it contains no details. University league tables, including those published by the Guardian, are independently compiled and rely on statistics already published such as the national student survey.
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