Rich, white students still do best at university. We must close the gap | Chris Millward

More students from underrepresented backgrounds are studying for a degree. The next step is to ensure they do well

Universities have been making progress on opening their doors to students from underrepresented backgrounds. But getting in is not enough – getting on is important too. Students from underrepresented groups deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in their studies and to pursue rewarding careers. This is not happening.

New data published by the Office for Students shows that black, Asian or disabled students and students from disadvantaged neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to succeed at university. The differences are stark: the proportion of students who get a first or 2:1 degree is 10 percentage points lower for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds than for their wealthier peers, three points lower for those with a disability than for those without, and 22 and 11 points lower respectively for black and Asian students than for white students.

These disparities are mirrored in graduates’ employment prospects. The proportion of students in graduate-level employment or further study soon after the end of their degrees is four percentage points lower for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds than for those from the least, three points lower for those with a disability than for those without, and five and two points lower for black and Asian students than for white students. These disparities persist even when entry grades and subject choice are accounted for.

The gaps exist for a number of reasons. Students’ sense of belonging is affected by the inclusivity of curricula and learning, teaching and assessment practices, the relationships between majority and minority groups of students, and the different profiles of staff and students. There are also differences in how students from different backgrounds and with different identities experience university life, engage with learning and turn to external support.

There can be practical challenges for students from lower-income backgrounds too. Many live at home rather than on campus, and some have work or caring responsibilities. These disadvantages are compounded by universities’ reticence to acknowledge and address the links between student outcomes and factors such as background, disability and race.

What is the OfS going to do about this? We plan to apply greater pressure than before for every university to reduce the outcome gaps among their students. There will be beefed-up powers, granted through recent legislation, to intervene in more nuanced ways than the previous access regulator. For instance, we will require universities charging the maximum £9,250 fee to submit clear, evidence-based plans that go beyond improving access for underrepresented groups to improving their degree outcomes.

But we can’t make this shift alone. We need stronger support for improving outcomes across the university sector. We will help universities do this by improving the data needed to target and support individual students, taking into account their particular characteristics and the circumstances of their learning. This will advance understanding of what an inclusive learning environment should look like.

There are plenty of examples of innovative schemes aimed at improving attainment. For example, students can have a real impact as mentors and ambassadors, and as co-creators and self-regulators of their learning. Equally, tailored resources and toolkits can raise awareness among academic staff. And work experience can be transformative.

There is likewise a growing community that is bringing together professional services, academic staff and students to develop robust, sustainable approaches to tackling harassment and hate crime, and to safeguarding all students. This is the most basic condition for their success.

I do not underestimate the challenge of tackling such ingrained and long-standing issues. But this is a thorn we must grasp if we are to reduce the differential outcomes in the data published today, and give every student the life-changing opportunity they deserve.

Chris Millward is director for access and participation in the Office for Students

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