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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2008, 13:29 GMT
Ethnic attainment 'needs action'
Graduation ceremony
Nearly all those surveyed said black students might face discrimination
Universities need to act urgently to ensure ethnic minority students are not discriminated against, a report argues.

Government statistics show students from minority ethnic groups are less likely than their white peers to achieve top marks in their degrees.

The report said the exact reasons for this were complex and hard to identify.

But experience of discrimination, and fears it might be repeated, appeared to affect self belief and thus ability to succeed, the study suggested.

The research for the Higher Education Academy and the Equality Challenge Unit attempted to understand an issue with "no easy explanation or answers".


Director of research and evaluation at the academy, Professor Lee Harvey, said the study revealed that attainment differences are not a "simple function of ethnicity and gender but are affected by rather more complex factors".

Earlier research had suggested the cause of the gap in attainment was "a mystery".

The researchers surveyed students and staff in 54 English higher education institutions and followed these up with phone interviews and a questionnaire.

The top three reasons that those surveyed gave for differential attainment were the need to undertake paid employment while studying, social class and prior family background of university.

But the researchers also said racism and ethnic discrimination in society was an important, but hard to quantify, issue affecting progression and attainment of students.

They found "nearly all informants felt that black minority ethnic students might face discrimination".

It added that it was possible for this to be replicated at university - even unwittingly.

The report urged universities to take urgent immediate practical action to tackle the problem. Further research was also needed, it said.

Better use of data can ensure that institutional policies are more effective
Nicola Dandridge
Equality Challenge Unit

The report argued that while universities may have race equality policies, there was "a need to couple the intentions of these documents with practices that enable all to feel part of the institution's community".

The study suggested universities should look at the way that they teach and assess students in the light of any variation in attainment between ethnic groups or genders.

They should also ensure that students are offered more feedback and better support networks.

The report highlights one example of a university that used a statistical model to predict students at risk of failure.

And institutions should make better use of any information they collect on differences in attainment, it said.

Chief executive of higher education's Equality Challenge Unit, Nicola Dandridge, said: "Better use of data can ensure that institutional policies are more effective in supporting students who might otherwise not be able to reach their full potential."


Director of the Higher Education Funding Council for England John Selby said the report raised very complex issues.

He said it showed that universities needed to analyse their data on attainment and explore ways to continue to improve opportunities for all students.

Head of equality and employment rights at the University College Union, Roger Kline, said: 'It is disappointing to see that race is still a factor influencing the degree classification attained by some students.

"More work needs to be done to investigate this and to remedy this failing."

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