The problems of English education 3: the irrationality of white students

My title, is, inevitably an exaggeration: I’m talking here about undergraduate students at English universities and referring to only one aspect of irrationality: economic irrationality. Nor am I saying that all white students are economically irrationally. But I think there is a good case to be made that white students are less likely to be economically rational when choosing their degree than BME (black and minority ethnic) students and that potentially poses a problem for academics in some subject areas.

To see this irrationality, here is data analysing the earnings of students after graduation graphed against the “whiteness” of the main subject groupings (using the JACS code). The earnings data is from the LEO project (Longitudinal Education Outcomes), specifically the Subject tables from  SFR60/2016. This looks at the earnings of UK domiciled first degree graduates from English HEIs.

In the first graph I show the median annual earnings for the cohort (male and female) who graduated in 2008/09 five years after their graduation, i.e. tax year 2014/15.

In the second graph I show the median annual earnings for male students who graduated in 2003/04 ten years after their graduation, i.e. tax year 2014/15. The data on ethnicity is from HESA Table 8 and is for full-time UK undergraduate enrolments for 2016/17.

Here are the figures:

Problems 3 figure 1
5 year subject earnings v “whiteness”
problems 3 figure 2
10 year male subject earnings v “whiteness”

It’s easy to see there’s at least some negative correlation between the “whiteness” of a subject and its long-term earnings. Or to put it another way, today’s BME students are more likely to choose subjects which have traditionally led to higher earnings than white students are. And even the one subject that looks at first sight like an outlier, veterinary science, which is unusually well-paid and very white, rather confirms my point. It’s a small subject group (just under 4000 students, as compared to over 40,000 studying medicine and dentistry). It also has very high entry standards: I would suspect that any student who could get onto a vet course could also get onto medicine or dental courses, which have better earnings prospects. In other words, we have here a group of very high-achieving white students whose love for animals is leading them into economically irrational behaviour.

There are some obvious caveats with the data. We’re comparing what subject students choose now with what students who graduated some years previously earn, and we’re comparing statistics for the UK and England. This set of LEO data didn’t distinguish between full-time and part-time students or between people subsequently in full-time and part-time employment. It also didn’t pick up earnings from self-employment, which is potentially significant for some subjects, especially creative arts. In addition, there are substantial differences between earnings for different subjects within some of these broad JACS codes. What the HESA data labels as “Social studies” is split by LEO between “Economics” and “Social studies (excluding economics)”. I’ve used the earnings for “Social studies (excluding economics)” in my graph. Later releases of LEO data have split subject classes down further because of differences between them. And given that there’s a gendered pay gap within subject groupings, as well as in UK society as a whole, subjects which have more female students than male are intrinsically likely to be less well-paid.

Even so, this data implies that some subjects have a potential problem with increasing their diversity: they’re both whiter than average and offer relatively poor prospects for future earnings. “History” (which includes archaeology, philosophy, theology and religious studies) is one of the obvious examples for this. Even if there is an overall graduate premium, that isn’t necessarily going to encourage BME students to study history. That’s because, as I said in my previous post, a higher proportion of BME students already go onto to university than white students. If history departments want to become more diverse, they’re going to have to do so largely through persuading BME potential students to change the subject they want to study rather than find eighteen and nineteen-year-olds who otherwise wouldn’t be going to university.

And now that the LEO data is available (and is likely to be increasingly publicised by the government), it is going to be that much harder to persuade economically rational students and their families that history is a good course to study. Which is difficult when history departments need a considerable number more BME students to reach the average diversity of universities. (I gave that in the previous post as 75%, based on figures for 2014-15. The HESA data for 2016-17 gives 74.5% of students overall as white). There’s a lot of variation in the size of the various subject classes. To put this in context, there were 52,500 students studying one of the subjects classed as history in 2016-2017. To get to the average diversity they’d need around 13, 400 BME students. They currently have 1,310 black students, 2,430 students of Asian background, 2,600 “other” (mainly mixed-ethnic backgrounds), plus 505 “not known”, for a total of 6,845 students, so to ensure average diversity, history departments need to find around 6,500 more BME students.

The problem is: where do you find these students from other subjects? Without presuming a rigid arts/science divide, potential students’ interests do matter. I doubt whether you could persuade many people planning to study the creative arts, for example, that they really want to do a history degree instead. And “Mass communications”, which looks like an obvious target for recruitment, being more diverse and worse paid, is a smaller subject, so it’s only got just over 6000 BME students studying it in total.

The only two subjects with big BME cohorts and roughly comparable subject matter to history are law and “Social studies excluding economics” (which covers politics, sociology, social work, anthropology and human and social geography). And it is not going to be easy to switch economically rational students away from studying law. Even after the economic crash of 2008, the median salaries of law graduates are still holding up, and after 10 years they are definitely more prosperous on average than history graduates.

History departments’ best hope therefore to increase diversity is to target students who might otherwise study social studies. The differences in long-term earnings between them are fairly minimal, as this table shows:

Median salaries Men (2008/09) Women (2008/09) Men (2003/04) Women (2003/04)
Social Studies (B) 26500 24000 33500 26500
Historical and Philosophical studies (G) 25500 24500 32500 26000


In other words, it doesn’t take too much economic irrationality to choose to study archaeology rather than anthropology.

But there’s a further twist that might give historians pause for thought. Is it morally right, in terms of economic justice, to encourage BME students to study historical subjects? The figures for median salaries I’ve given so far are for students of all ethnicities. But the LEO study also looked at long-term earnings by ethnicity for graduates. (see pp. 16-17 of SFR60/2016). There’s a lot of variation between ethnic groups, with graduates of some ethnicities (Indian and Chinese) doing better in terms of long-term earnings than white students. But there are a number of ethnic groups (black Caribbean, black African, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) whose graduate median incomes are below that of white students, even though such students are more likely to be studying well-paid subjects. If many BME graduates are already earning less than their white counterparts, should historians be encouraging them to study a subject that doesn’t pay that well overall? It’s one thing to encourage the economic irrationally of white students; should history departments also be encouraging it for groups that have historically been near the bottom of the economic heap? To what extent might increasing the diversity of history students come at the expense of those students’ future economic prospects?

Scope note: this is the third 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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