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Minority Ethnic Students in Higher Education: interim report
Connor H, Tyers C, Davis S, Tackey N D, Modood T
research commissioned by the DfES
This summary was published in the Department for Education and Skills Research Report RR448.
This report is about research in progress on the flows into, through and out of higher education (HE) of minority ethnic groups. The focus is on undergraduate study in England. The report presents interim findings of the research programme, from the stages completed to date. These are: an initial assessment of existing research evidence on minority ethnic groups in HE; and a national survey of undergraduate students undertaken in Spring 2002. The survey explored their choices of HE study, experiences to date, financial issues and job/career plans. Other stages of the research programme currently in progress or planned for 2003, are surveys of potential students, of parents of current students and of graduates (follow-up one year later of final year students), and case study interviews with employers. The findings of these stages will be presented in the final report on the project, due for completion in early 2004.
The student survey comprised face-to-face interviews with a sample of over 1,300 UK-domiciled undergraduate students, including over 700 from minority ethnic groups, at 33 institutions in England. In addition, more in-depth interviews were undertaken with 30 survey respondents, and representatives from the HE institutions covered in the sample were also interviewed. The survey was designed to provide results for a representative sample of all undergraduate students in England, and also for a sample comprising a large cross-section of minority ethnic students, so that comparisons could be made between minority groups (and sub-groups, eg by age, gender).
A key theme to emerge in the research has been the diversity of the minority ethnic student population in HE study, and the way patterns of participation, experiences within HE and outcomes, vary substantially between the different minority ethnic groups. Crucially, issues can have much more significance for certain groups than others, often because of their different personal and educational profiles, in particular their family and social backgrounds and entry routes into HE study. Frequently, when these are taken into account, many of the differences evident between ethnic groups diminish, indicating that these other factors may be at least as, if not more, important than ethnicity as an explanatory variable. Thus the focus of the analysis on minority ethnic students in HE study has to be undertaken at a disaggregated level, otherwise there is the danger that key points of difference between minority ethnic groups are glossed over. However, the need to analyse at a detailed level can cause problems in terms of reliability of findings, as some groups, such as Bangladeshi and Chinese, are small in number. This needs to be borne in mind when reading the report.
The main points to emerge from the research programme so far are:
On participation in HE study …
These differences help explain the variations in HE participation levels, and also patterns of HE study, of the different groups. But some of these variables are inter-related, and there are other reasons for higher participation levels among some minority ethnic groups.
Taking all the available evidence from previous research and this research into account, there are two sets of factors that stand out as being main ‘drivers’ of HE participation for minority ethnic students:
These are of course often linked, and formed by a range of cultural and social influences. The importance of parental experience of HE, and more so in some cases siblings with HE experience, has been identified; another key factor is likely to be ‘generation’ (though this also relates to social class); a third key factor is the importance of religion. These social/cultural factors have been identified more in some groups than in others, and are being investigated further in other stages of the research.
A number of other factors can influence decision making about what and where to study at the time that actual choices are being made. While minority ethnic students tend to take account of a similar range of factors as White students when making course or subject choices, on the whole, job/employment considerations and views of family members have more influence for minority ethnic students, than White students (though again this varies by minority ethnic group, and parental influence was more evident among Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and Black African groups). Institutional choices of minority ethnic students as for potential students in general, are determined mainly by their preference for a particular type of course or subject on offer. The relative importance of subject and course type in the choice of institution varies between minority ethnic groups.
In addition to these individual choice factors, previous research has indicated that some discrimination against minority ethnic students exists in the student application and admission process at old universities, and that this is a cause of the uneven distribution of minority ethnic students in the HE sector. There was little evidence in the student survey on perceptions of any racial discrimination in the application/admissions process (however, only some of our minority ethnic sample are likely to have applied to an old university). Nor was there any evidence that there were any significant problems for minority ethnic students in accessing information about HE to help them make their choices about HE institutions and courses. But variations between ethnic groups in their use of different information sources, in particular the influence of parents in HE choices was evident, and this is being explored further in other stages of the research programme.
Progress within HE also varies …
In aggregate, the national student statistics show that Black students are likely to have higher early leaving rates than Asians from full-time degree courses, and the rates for both groups are higher than for White students on average. But once allowances are made for the variations between groups, in particular by entry qualification but also by age, gender and subject, the differences reduce markedly. There are no comparable statistics available for other types of courses, nor at a more disaggregated level (ie for individual minority ethnic groups).
A range of other factors can cause early leaving, such as dislike/wrong choice of course, financial pressures and course specific difficulties, but there is no existing conclusive evidence about their differential effect on minority ethnic groups. Our survey was not able to investigate this (as it was on current students), and although we asked questions to identify factors which might put students more at risk of not completing their course, no consistent pattern was evident to help explain the different retention rates. This is an area which requires further attention in future research.
And achievement varies too …
All minority ethnic groups achieve lower classes of degrees, on average, than White students. Black, and especially Black African, students come out as the lowest achieving group.
The key factors affecting degree outcomes in general are entry qualifications and prior education, and as these vary considerably between ethnic groups, they help to explain much of the observable difference in degree outcomes. Other likely explanations put forward by previous research on specific groups of students have been racial bias in assessment at some institutions, and negative impact of term-time working. Our student survey could not look at variations in actual degree outcomes, but instead highlighted a number of problem areas which students identified as having an impact on their academic performance to date. The main ones (among a wide range of problems reported) were: financial difficulties, effects of term-time working, lack of support or encouragement from lecturers, and course/facilities-related issues. On the whole, minority ethnic students were more likely than White students to report most of these main problem areas, but there was a significant amount of variation in how they had affected individual minority ethnic groups. This is also an area which would benefit from more research attention.
Financial arrangements vary …
Previous research has highlighted some differences between minority ethnic groups in the way they finance their studies, though this evidence is quite limited. The student survey provided a more up-to-date perspective and showed that:
Had they made the right choice?
Despite raising a number of negative issues about their HE experiences to date, students were on the whole highly satisfied with the choices they had made about courses and institutions, and this applied almost equally to minority ethnic and White students.
And finally, on graduate outcomes …
At this stage in the research we can report only the existing statistical evidence and previous research on minority ethnic graduate outcomes, and how final year students in the survey were approaching the job market. More evidence on the transition to the labour market of minority ethnic groups will emerge from the next stages in the study.
The evidence presented in this report shows that:
From our survey of students, it was evident that career plans and job search behaviour in the final year vary between minority ethnic groups of students. Pakistani/Bangladeshi students were much more likely to have secured a job earlier than others; while Chinese/Asian Other students were more likely to be seeking a job overseas. On the whole, minority ethnic students were more likely than White students to use informal sources of information about jobs and careers, or more independent approaches to finding jobs (in particular using the Internet and taking advice from family and friends rather than the university careers staff), but yet again, this varied between groups.
These issues, and others relating to the transition to the labour market, are being explored further in other stages of the research programme.
Minority Ethnic Students in Higher Education: interim report, Connor H, Tyers C, Davis S, Tackey N D, Modood T. Research Report RR448, Department for Education and Skills, 2003.
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