I was shocked to learn recently that students from BME backgrounds are 20% less likely to achieve a ‘good’ degree result (a First or Upper Second) than their White peers. Given this startling research finding, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) chose to look at this issue in their annual Diversity Conference. I was invited to give the keynote address at the conference and this article is a summary of that lecture.
Now, I am no academic! But I do feel passionately about this issue and can offer some perspectives and insights from Mosaic’s work with young people from deprived communities. But let me start by making it clear why this issue matters so much. It matters:
- for social justice
- for the health and prosperity of the UK and its economy as a whole
- for the university sector
- and, of course, for the individual students concerned.
At this point I want to highlight just a few key, salient facts:
- It is nothing short of scandalous that, whilst ever-increasing numbers of students from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds are entering the university system, the percentage of students from these backgrounds achieving First or Upper Second degrees is over 15% lower than their White colleagues.
- That this gap is seemingly failing to close in any meaningful way despite it being increasingly acknowledged and interventions put in place in an attempt to address the disparity is plain infuriating and dispiriting.
- That this must be contributing significantly to the shocking post-graduate employability disparity between BME and White students – where Black graduates are three times more likely to be unemployed within six months of graduation than their White peers – makes the need for radical action even more pressing.
Four reasons this matters
Now, let me return to the four key reasons why I think the issue of under-attainment by students from BME backgrounds is of wider relevance.
Firstly, this issue should matter for anyone interested in social justice. Social mobility, very much the buzzword of today’s politicians and social activists, is stubbornly immune to meaningful positive improvement. The sad truth is that the social background into which you are born and raised continues to play a massively disproportionate factor in your overall life chances.
The CBI’s report on social mobility and educational attainment last year provided some very sober reading. It highlighted a series of very stark statistics:
- Among pupils qualifying for free school meals in England for example, 81% reach the expected level of maths in Key Stage 1 at age seven. But by the time of Key Stage 2 assessments at age 11, only two thirds (67%) do so.
- By age 11, those living in the poorest fifth of UK household have only a 75% chance of reaching the Government’s Key Stage 2 expected levels, compared to 97% of children from the richest fifth.
- Those from the poorest fifth of families have a 45% chance of being read to daily at age 3 compared with 80% of children from the richest fifth.
- At the age of 4, children in receipt of free school meals will have heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families
Last week, figures from the Early Years Foundation State Profile looking at how different groups of pupils fare, revealed that just 29% of boys and 44% of girls eligible for free school meals have reached a ‘good’ level of development after their first year in school. This level, compared to 55 per cent of other pupils. The figures also showed that Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and non-British or Irish white groups performed less well than their peers.
Given this, if a young person manages to overcome all the barriers that exist to securing a place at university in the first place, is it not all the more outrageous that we then allow that person’s ability to be unsupported and, ultimately, unrecognised when they get to university? Hasn’t securing a good degree always been a key way in which the talented can break free from deprivation and disadvantage?
But the impact is not just on those students who fail to achieve the degree result which their talents deserve; the impact is also on their peers. In Mosaic, a key part of our work is helping those who have achieved success to go back to their communities or other similar communities to inspire those with the talent to follow them. This is, however, becoming ever more difficult when those who have secured university places find that they haven’t achieved the success they expected to result. Those we support, very understandably, are looking at some of their older peers and asking a very simple question: “Why bother?”
So to the second reason why all this matters: the health and prosperity of the UK and our economy. We all know that economic success depends on our developing an ever more highly skilled workforce. If we have a higher education sector that is letting down significant numbers of those entering it, the wider economic impact is obvious.
All of the research into aspiration-raising interventions, such as Mosaic’s programmes, makes it very clear that it is worse to have raised a young person’s aspirations and then let them down than to have not raised their aspirations at all. So many of the young people we support have been let down by so many adults upon whom they should be able to rely for encouragement and help. We know that those from deprived and marginalised socio-economic backgrounds are less resilient than their peers; we at Mosaic see all too often how the young people with which we work will give up at the first obstacle. The long-term social impacts, therefore, of a growing number of BME graduates who are then finding that they are failing to meet their potential and are not deriving economic advantage from their studies are very worrying. We are at risk – and I think it rather a potent risk – in developing a growing cadre of educated but disaffected individuals thwarted from using their full potential for the good of society and for their own personal sense of accomplishment.
Moving on to point three: that of the university system itself. Like it or not, the higher education system today is a market. And a very competitive one at that. Not just a domestic market but, of course, an international market. With the advent of tuition fees, young people today are undertaking pretty sophisticated cost-benefit analyses when considering their personal futures. A recent Office for National Statistics report shows that almost half of all recent university leavers are now working in non-graduate jobs, up from 37 per cent in 2001. So, if a growing number of students from particular backgrounds see that the system isn’t benefiting their long-term economic future , this should be of very real concern to the university sector.
When we then consider the international market, these concerns are even more urgent. Put simply, if a university is to justify its tuition fees, it must be able to show that the ethnic or other background of the individual paying that significant cost will not impact on the value of the goods being purchased. Can you imagine being told that your newly-purchased car, sold at the same cost, would have a lower fuel economy if you were Black than if you were White? So, why should someone from a minority ethnic background be prepared to pay the same tuition fees as their White counterparts, if they know that they are likely to get a lesser degree result?
Finally, what about the argument of personal fairness? In this wonderfully diverse United Kingdom of ours , is there a place for a situation in which a young person’s degree result will depend upon which particular ethnic background they come?
What Mosaic has learned
So what has Mosaic learned over the last six years that might be relevant to the issues I’ve raised so far?
Firstly, the world in which most of us grew up is unrecognisable to the world in which today’s young people are growing up. The issues being faced by these young people are almost scarily unexpected to those of us of older generations.
But young people haven’t changed so very much. They still want to succeed, they still want to leave an impression upon the world, they still want happiness and security. We just have to listen to them, it’s not good enough to think that just because it was good enough for us that it will be good enough for them. We must expect the unexpected and those of us in positions of authority can, and must, be prepared to re-think our ways of working – and teaching – if we are to do these young people proud.
Secondly, we have learned that supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds is tough, it takes time and it takes a lot of patience and it takes a willingness to look at the world from their perspective! But it is so worth it! Mentoring is a fantastic way to show them that it is possible to succeed, it is possible to realise your dreams, and that they have a right to such dreams.
Mentors who have a connection with these young people – – can show them that it is worth striving. Our mentors are pretty tough on their charges: they don’t make excuses for them, they don’t let them settle for second best, they don’t let them off the hook. Rather, they show them what it will take to succeed, they are honest with them that it will almost definitely be harder for them, they help them to play the game, and they support them when they don’t quite make it on the first, second or even third attempt.
Thirdly, we have learned that it is simply not enough to create the opportunity for these young people. We have to help them to grasp that opportunity, we have to convince them that they deserve that opportunity – that they have the right to that opportunity. And then our mentors support them in taking it up.
We don’t work in isolation, we ensure that we understand the views of those around the young people – their parents, wider family and peer group. At the primary school level, we deliberately work with both the children and their parents.
Higher education and mentoring
A final thought. We have often been asked when Mosaic will expand our mentoring programmes to colleges and universities. Initial research suggested that higher education is a crowded market to which we could add little. But on further inspection our research showed that the few programmes aimed at minority ethnic students, are heavily over-subscribed. So, many of these programmes have introduced a competitive process to winnow down the number of mentees to the available number of mentors. That would seem reasonable, surely? But let’s look at that again. Programmes designed to support those who lack the confidence and skills to reach their full potential are subject to a competitive process. So those most able to show why they are worthy of support, those most confident in selling their case, those most capable of taking a rejection in their stride are the very students most likely to impress those recruiting for these programmes. It is pure folly.
Mosaic has long-term aims to expand to the higher education sector as and when resources and capacity allows. In the meantime, any universities that are running or want to run mentoring programmes, must ensure that they are designed to support those most in need of support rather than those most capable of presenting their case for support well.
The need for action is plain and it is pressing. I commend UCLan for taking the lead on this issue. I hope that other universities will follow swiftly in their wake to ensure that they drive change in their institutions in order to ensure that their BME students are no longer having one held hand behind their back in their academic careers.