This month, several hundred thousand young people across the U.K. will be heading to university for the first time, their sights set on achieving a decent degree and improving their career prospects. It’s bound to be a very different experience due to social distancing measures but, despite fears that many would opt out or defer, record numbers of U.K. school-leavers will be taking up university places this year. Even more encouraging is the fact that more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have won university places than ever before.
This is good news–more diverse undergraduates ultimately lead to more diverse talent pools for employers–but U.K. universities still need to do more to ensure fair access, participation and success for underrepresented groups. And employers can help.
Bright Spots But More Progress Needed
While this year’s admissions data suggests that advances are being made, Sir Michael Barber, chair of university regulator the Office for Students says that more needs to be done to close gaps, as “students from the most advantaged areas outnumber those from the least advantaged areas five to one at our most selective universities, and there is still a nearly two-fold gap across other higher education providers.”
Universities also have some way to go on ethnic diversity. According to the latest data for 2018-19, while the percentage of students from minority ethnic groups has increased by 7.5% since 2010-11, almost three quarters (71.2%) of undergraduate entrants are white.
Lack Of Diversity In Admissions
Sadly, students from the most disadvantaged groups are less likely to apply to university in the first place. Part of the reason is the cost, despite financial aid being available. With a typical three-year undergraduate course costing in the region of £27,750 in tuition fees alone (more than $36,000), getting a job or taking up an apprenticeship may be a more attractive option for some.
What is perhaps less known is that, despite having the grades for ‘more selective’ institutions, up to one in four students from lower socio-economic backgrounds take courses at ‘less prestigious’ universities. Is this because they (or their teachers) didn’t feel confident enough in their abilities? Did they have access to the right information or advice at school? Or are they simply worried about not fitting in?
A fear of not belonging is one of the reasons why students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups see certain universities as not welcoming them, says Professor Nishan Canagarajah, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester. They find it hard to identify with predominantly white teaching staff–fewer than 1% of professors employed at U.K. universities are Black–and reading lists are dominated by white European male authors of a certain age.
Poor Outcomes For Underrepresented Groups
It stands to reason that the lack of representation of underrepresented groups on staff means that there is likely to be a weaker support network for those who need it. Of those underrepresented groups who do make it to university, the figures show that many struggle compared to their white counterparts. According to a UPP Foundation and the Social Market Foundation (SMF) report, one in ten (10.3%) Black students drop out of university, compared with 6.9 percent of the student population as a whole. Meanwhile, BAME students who go on to graduate don’t perform as well as their white counterparts; the latest figures show a 13% gap between the likelihood of white students and students from BAME backgrounds getting a 1st or a 2:1 degree classification.
Paving The Way For Progress
At U.K. universities, various efforts are underway to reach out to underrepresented groups and challenge their misperceptions, and to create the kind of environment where they feel welcome and supported. These range from candidate recruitment campaigns such as the one recently launched by Cambridge University to mentoring schemes such as Kingston University’s Beyond Barriers program.
Numerous initiatives are also in motion to diversify curricula and make library collections and reading lists more inclusive, such as Huddersfield University’s Broaden my Bookshelf or the UCL-driven Why is My Curriculum White? Steps are also being taken to address the lack of diversity among teaching staff through mentorships which prioritize underrepresented groups, such as at King’s College London, and programs designed to attract them into academia, including Leicester University’s newly launched scheme to create funded PhD studentships and postgraduate scholarships aimed at students from BAME backgrounds.
How Employers Can Help
While this is positive news, U.K. universities still have a long way to go to make admissions and the university experience more inclusive. It won’t be right for everyone, nor will it be necessary for every job, but a good degree from a good university gives young people more choices.
In my experience, employers value degrees and see them as an effective way to benchmark prospective hires. For some careers they demand them as a minimum entry requirement.
Until this changes, the responsibility to improve the diversity of undergraduates shouldn’t sit with universities alone. Businesses can do more to assert pressure and provide support to help improve diverse admissions.
To start with, more companies should partner with schools and colleges in order to support work experience and internships. Any business–from SMEs through to global firms–can do this, and it will benefit both the student and the company. Employers can also partner with schools, colleges and universities to support scholarships, speak at careers days and even create links with underrepresented student groups in schools, colleges and/or universities. Apprenticeships can also provide a fantastic pathway for businesses to improve social mobility within their communities, if executed correctly.
Essentially, businesses’ chief role to play is showing young people, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, financial circumstance or gender, their options.
In doing so, the numbers of underrepresented groups of undergraduates can improve and employers will be able to choose from a pool of applicants that bring diversity of thought and experience, in the knowledge that this fosters innovation while being representative of their communities and stakeholder groups.