The problems of English education 2: diverse forms of diversity

The recent IPR report on diversity within universities has the great merit of providing some hard data on what is obviously empirically: universities vary greatly in their ethnic diversity. It also looks at this in terms of broad subject categories, which is particularly useful (and challenging) for historians, since history is one of the “whiter” subjects. The disadvantages of the report are firstly, that the main tables are only in pdf format and secondly, that the main measure used to analyse diversity is an entropy index, which isn’t intuitive to non-specialists. But I’ve got some of the data out of the tables and have started playing with it, so here are some of my initial thoughts on overall university diversity. (I’ll say more about subjects in a later post).

Although it’s not explicitly started in the report, I presume that all this data refers to UK-domiciled students only (not international ones) and that it refers to undergraduates. One of the main points that the report makes is that there are a large number of universities that are very white. It takes a little work to extract the underlying data on overall ethnic composition of students in 2014-2015 from the report’s Table 3, but here it is:

Student ethnicity Percentage
White 75.01
Black/Black British – Caribbean 1.66
Black/Black British – African 5.56
Other Black background 0.38
 Asian/Asian British Indian 3.39
Asian/Asian British – Pakistani 3.31
Asian/ Asian – British Bangladeshi 1.40
Chinese 0.84
Other Asian 2.08
Other (including mixed) 5.44
Ethnicity not known 0.92
Total 100.00

What’s immediately noticeable is that the student population is considerably less white than the population of the UK as a whole (which in the 2011 census was 87% white). To some extent this is related to age structure, but it also reflects different rates of attending university.  As a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported in 2015:

All ethnic minority groups in England are now, on average, more likely to go to university than their White British peers. This is the case even amongst groups who were previously under-represented in higher education, such as those of Black Caribbean ethnic origin, a relatively recent change.

As the IFS data shows, this also applies to those from the lowest socio-economic groups. Of the poorest quintile of white British pupils, 13% go on to university; 53% of the poorest quintile of Black African pupils do and 66% of Chinese pupils.

This suggests that universities aren’t easily going to be able to increase diversity by getting more BME (black and minority ethnic) students to go onto higher education: their participation rate is already significantly greater than their white contemporaries. In particular, if universities are also successful at encouraging more university attendance from low-participation areas, this is going to make the university sector overall whiter than it already is. Nor is there an easy way to square this circle via mature students. People from most ethnic minorities of all ages are more likely to have degrees than White British people. There are a few exceptions: people from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, White and Black Caribbean and Gypsy/Traveller backgrounds are overall less likely to have a degree. But even so, getting mature people back into study has become much harder due to government policies.

What this means is that to an increasing extent, ethnic diversity in universities is becoming a zero-sum game: there simply isn’t a large untapped pool of BME candidates. What we’re talking about now is exchanging or mixing students between universities. It’s here that increasing the diversity of very white universities becomes more difficult. Gamsu and Donnelly, the authors of the IPR report, comment on the fact that the most diverse universities are largely ‘newer’ ones:

only 12.3% of White British students attend the most diverse universities. Many of these universities are ‘new’ (post-1992) institutions which typically have less research funding and are not targeted by elite graduate employers. This suggests a highly unequal system of higher education divided along lines of class as well as race, with White students largely avoiding these lower-ranked and more diverse universities.

But this analysis, while correct, ignores an important factor: the extent of diversity isn’t closely related to the rank of individual universities. To show this, I combined the IPR data on diversity with a ranking of universities from the Complete University Guide. This doesn’t cover all the institutions discussed in the IPR report (there is a separate listing for some specialist art and music colleges (which I didn’t use) and a few universities aren’t mentioned at all, but it does cover 129 universities. I chose the Complete University Guide because its ranking are available free online, cover almost all UK universities (unlike the THES rankings) and aren’t as controversial as the Guardian rankings. if anyone  can suggest a better ranking set to use, I’d be interested to hear it.

If you map diversity against Complete University Guide rankings, you get a very interesting picture. I did this twice, first with the diversity entropy score used in the IPR report and then with the statistics they give on the percentage of White British students. As you will see, there is no correlation between reputation and diversity.

Problems 2 image 1



But there’s a subtler pattern which is likely to cause problems if universities attempt to become more ethnically diverse: there are relatively few universities with ‘average’ diversity. This is clearer from the second image, where I’ve added a line showing universities with 75% White British students, which is the mean across universities. Most universities are substantially whiter than this, with 85% or more students being White British. In contrast, there are a relatively small number of universities, at all levels of reputation, which are very diverse, where White British students make up less than 65% of the student population. For example, the LSE (ranked 4th) has 55% White British students, Imperial (ranked 5th) has 56% White British students, UCL (ranked 7th) has 59% White British students and King’s College London (ranked 21st) has 58% White British students.

This creates a potential problem for these highly diverse universities. If highly ranked but predominantly white universities are trying to get a more diverse student body, than they’re going to be targeting BME students going to slightly less prestigious ones. So, for example, Oxford, St Andrews (ranked 3rd) and Durham (ranked 6th) might look to encourage BME students to choose them rather than KCL. They would therefore probably accept slightly fewer White British students on their courses, who in theory would then be available to go to KCL.

The problem is that this circulation of students is likely to be uneven. It’s the best BME students who high-ranking but less-diverse universities are going to want, while the white students no longer given offers by these universities are going to be the weaker ones. And they aren’t necessarily going to want to go to the few highly diverse universities. To see this, suppose that the 10 highest ranking low-diversity mathematics departments each manage to get 2 extra BME students who would previously have gone to KCL and as a result each reject 2 extra White British mathematics students. Where is KCL going to make up their lost 20 students? Not all these newly rejected students are necessarily going to want to go to KCL. I didn’t want to go to London when I was an 18-year-old maths student, although my brother had gone off to UCL the previous year. But for me, London was too big and scary. If I hadn’t got into Oxford, I’d have gone to a university that was less diverse than KCL, although possibly in a highly diverse city (my insurance offer was Leicester).

In other words, the new flows aren’t going to be symmetrical. Some of the displaced ‘top’ White British students aren’t going to go to London universities instead, but lower-ranked provincial ones. So if KCL wants to recruit the same number of maths students, it’s going to have to accept ones with lower grades (either White or BME). And so it keeps on down the rankings: if higher-ranking but less diverse universities want to become more diverse, universities that are currently highly diverse are likely to lose out in terms of attracting the students with best grades. It’s no wonder that the call for comprehensive universities, aiming to prevent selection by more successful universities, comes from an academic at the highly-diverse Middlesex University.

And there’s also a second problem with demands for universities to become more diverse: what do you do about low-ranked but very white universities? Look at the ten least diverse universities in the United Kingdom:

St Mary’s University College

Stranmillis University College

Harper Adams University

Royal Agricultural University

Queen’s University of Belfast


Bishop Grosseteste University

University of the Highlands and Islands

University of St Mark and St John

What you have is specialist agricultural and rural institutions (Harper Adams, Royal Agricultural University, SRUC), Northern Irish and Scottish universities (St Mary’s, Stranmills, QUB, UHI) and very new universities that were previously teacher training colleges (Marjon and Bishop Grosseteste) in relatively rural areas. It’s hard to see how most of these institutions are going to be able to attract substantial numbers of BME students, especially when most forms of affirmative action are illegal in the UK. So there is likely to remain a “hard core” of non-diverse institutions in England (as well as a number in other parts of the UK), even if some universities do manage to increase their diversity (probably at the expense of others). If we’re going to increase diversity in English universities, which makes sense given the increasingly diverse world students are going to live and work in, we need to be realistic about some of the unexpected side-effects this may have.


Scope note: this is the second of a series of posts inspired by three recent publications/projects on UK universities:

The IPR Policy Brief, Diverse Places of Learning? Home neighbourhood ethnic diversity & ethnic composition of universities

Results from the Longitudinal Education Outcomes study (see discussion at Wonkhe)

Tim Blackman, The Comprehensive University (Higher Education Policy Institute Occasional Paper 17)

Since the education systems of the four parts of the UK differ on some ways and most of my experience is English, I’ve chosen to focus on that country.



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