The underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in higher education: are aspirations to blame?

31st July 2014

I based my presentation on some basic analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, which I used to explore how young people from the same cohort, but different ethnic groups, differ in relation to:

  • Their aspirations and expectations of HE
  • Whether they seek information and guidance on how to get there
  • Whether they end up going to university (and Russell Group)
  • Their experiences of Higher Education

The data suggest that young people’s aspirations to go to university, and their expectations that they will get into university if they apply, aren’t any lower among those from minority ethnic backgrounds (in fact, they’re higher). However, the participation rates of minority ethnic groups at the UK’s 24 leading universities are significantly lower than those for White young people, and the data also suggest that young people from these minority groups tend to have less positive experiences at university, and that they feel they had a less accurate picture of university before they attended.


What to make of these findings? I suggest that it might be important to look at the forms of information, advice and guidance (IAG) that young people use. In particular, I pick up on the fact that for all ethnic groups, ‘friends and relatives’ is by far the most popular source of IAG – a finding mirrored in an AAT report out today. It might therefore be important to target Widening Participation efforts at parents and family, alongside young people themselves. The point isn’t that parents have ‘low aspirations’ for their children, but that if they haven’t been to university themselves, they’re less likely to be able to advise their children on the practicalities and benefits of higher education. Enam Ahmod, a student on the afternoon panel discussion at the Brilliant Club conference, suggested that university summer schools should be opened up to parents as well as their children. The University of Glasgow’s Parents’ Information Events are also a good example of how informational barriers to participation can be overcome. Underlying these efforts to widen participation, we need to keep this simple message in mind: it’s about information, not aspiration.