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25th February 2015

Racial discrimination still exists in top universities

A report by University of Manchester and Leeds Beckett academics has shown that black and minority ethnic students are less likely to get into Russell Group universities, even with similar school results to their white counterparts

Racial inequality remains prevalent throughout all areas of British higher education, including admissions, staffing and employment, according to a new report by the Runnymede Trust, a London-based think tank.

Led by academics from the University of Manchester and Leeds Beckett University, the report found that black and minority ethnic (BME) students are less likely to get into the more prestigious institutions, notwithstanding their A-level results.

David Lammy MP, in his foreword for the Runnymede Trust report, said: “Whether in terms of admissions, attainment, employment, the student experience or indeed staffing, universities still have some way to go to ensure equality for ethnic minorities in Britain.

“So despite the lofty ideals of universities, they do no better—and are in fact doing worse—than many other institutions in British society when it comes to race equality.”

Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “Evidence that white British students with lower A-level results are more likely to get into elite British universities than Asian students with higher A-level results suggests there is unconscious bias, if not positive discrimination, in favour of white university applicants in 2015.”

Among other results, the report found that 1.5 per cent of students who go to university are Black Caribbean but that in the prestigious Russell Group of research-intensive universities, only 0.5 per cent of them make it. Likewise, Black African students make up 4.4 per cent of university students but only 2.2 per cent of Russell Group students are from that minority group.

Robie Shilliam, a Queen Mary University of London academic who participated in the research, said: “Unless we subscribe to the idea that black people are inherently more stupid than white people we have to say that there is something going on structurally in these universities.

“If that’s the case then universities which are supposed to provide a meritocratic basis for future life are actually reproducing existing inequalities and might actually be deepening them.”

Pam Tatlow, who participated in the Runnymede Trust’s research and is Chief Executive of Million+, a think tank, said, “a small number of universities, about 30 in total, educate 60 per cent of all black students and 36 per cent of all Asian students. But perhaps unsurprisingly, these are not the universities that politicians mention very often.”

Some scholars in the project have also pointed out that access to data about admissions processes is becoming increasingly restricted and thus providing a totally transparent view of the situation is becoming a harder task.

The Mancunion contacted all 24 universities in the Russell Group. Efforts to obtain comments from the universities of Birmingham, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Imperial College London, Leeds, London School of Economics, Newcastle, Nottingham, Queen’s University Belfast, University College London, Warwick and York, which together make 15 of the 24 institutions in the group, were unsuccessful.

A spokesperson for Cardiff University, the only university in the group to recognise the existence of inequality in admissions, said: “The university recognises that there are still challenges to address in ensuring equality for BME applicants and students.”

The universities of Oxford, Glasgow and King’s College London rejected the problems pointed out by the report in the strongest terms, with a representative for the University of Oxford describing the inequality claims as “unsubstantiated,” a spokesman for the University of Glasgow citing its policy of “zero tolerance on all forms of discrimination,” and a speaker for King’s College London saying that “we take the issue of fair access very seriously.”

The universities of Bristol, Liverpool, Sheffield and Southampton remitted all comments to the Russell Group head office.

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said: “A crucial piece of the jigsaw is missing because the [Runnymede Trust’s] research takes no account of the entry requirements for the courses that students apply to. Many good students haven’t taken the subjects needed for entry and universities need students not only to have good grades, but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for.”

A spokesperson for Queen Mary University of London said: “Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has a long and proud tradition of diversity, engagement with our East London community, and increasing access to higher education. We celebrate the diversity of our student body and aspire to be recognised as a prime destination for students from lower participation backgrounds”.

A spokesperson for the University of Manchester said: “The University of Manchester has a commitment to addressing gaps in participation between equality groups through our Access Agreement. As part of this the university undertakes targeted outreach work for protected groups such as adult learners, BME groups, gender-targeted activities and disabled learners.

“Work to increase the participation of BME groups in higher education is co-ordinated through a dedicated post based at the university and working in partnership with the Race Relations Resource Centre—a Trust based within Manchester Central Library.”

The full report ‘Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy’ can be found at the Runnymede Trust website.

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