Black and minority ethnic students find it harder to get into university than their classmates even when they have the same grades, according to a report due to be published tomorrow.
The university admissions process should be overhauled to reduce the current bias in the system, according to the study by race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust.
Applicants should be identified by a number rather than their names to help reduce discrimination, according to report author Vikki Boliver, a senior lecturer in sociology at Durham University.
The research investigates how many applicants were offered places at leading universities and then compares the success rates of white, black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students.
After A-level grades were taken into account, 52 per cent of applications made by white British students to the 24 Russell Group institutions resulted in offers. This rate compared to 44.7 per cent for Black Caribbean students, 42.6 per cent for Bangladeshi students and 39.6 per cent for Pakistani students.
The lowest success rate was for applications from students with a Black African background, with only 35.7 per cent of these applicants receiving offers.
A similar pattern applied in other universities. For non-Russell group old universities, there was a statistically significant different success rate between white applicants and those from all other ethnic minorities apart from Chinese and Indian backgrounds.
For new universities, Bangladeshi and Indian candidates were slightly more likely to get offers than white British students, but black, Pakistani and mixed-race students had lower offer rates. The analysis covers offers made during 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Speaking to TES, Dr Boliver said that the patterns could be down to an unconscious bias: “We all carry stereotypes in our heads. If we don’t have very clear procedures when selecting people for jobs or places on courses that mitigate against those stereotypes, there may be the danger that we unconsciously fall back on them. We may feel that certain people will ‘fit in’ better.
“Leaving people’s names off Ucas [the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] forms would be an experiment to see if people are being influenced by names.
“There are also other factors that selectors are legitimately taking into account such as predicted grades and GCSE grades. I am not able to take those into account as Ucas won’t allow researchers to have access to that data.
“But even if the difference in offer rates is due to predicted grades being systematically under-predicted for ethnic minority students, that is still a problem for the university.”
The report comes after Ucas published data last week showing that a record number of UK students from ethnic minority backgrounds were accepted on to university courses in 2014, including 45,000 UK students with Asian heritage and 30,000 Black British students.
But Dr Boliver pointed out that although British ethnic minorities as a whole were more likely to go to university than white British students, this hid differences between the different ethnic groups.
Dr Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “Students from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds have to do better in their A-levels than their white counterparts to be admitted to university. What message does that send to young people who have heard for decades now that ‘education, education, education’ will ensure their equal opportunities in the labour market?
“Despite the positive increase of BME people in higher education, they are still under-represented at the best universities, are still less likely than others to get jobs worthy of their education, and still have a less positive experience while at university."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “Ensuring our doors are wide open to able students from all backgrounds really matters to Russell Group universities. That’s why our universities are investing a huge amount of time, effort and resources and developing pioneering schemes to help close the access gap.
"Next year, our universities will spend £234 million supporting poorer students and reaching out to pupils, teachers and parents across the country.
“Real progress has been made over the past few years: the numbers of black students accepted by Russell Group universities went up 40 per cent between 2010 and 2014 and the number of Asian students by 13 per cent. But we are keen to see this trend continue further."
Dr Piatt pointed out that "a crucial piece of the jigsaw" was missing because the research took no account of specific entry requirements. She said: “Many good students haven’t taken the subjects needed for entry and universities need students not only to have good grades but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for.
“This is precisely why we publish Informed Choices, a guide which gives pupils information on choosing the right subjects at school for different degree courses, and it is why our universities spend money, time and effort working with schools from the early years onwards.”
UCAS reveals record demand for UK HE courses 30 Jan 2015