Why is the government trying to get more ‘BME’ students into university?

March 25, 2016

The Business Secretary Sajid Javid has announced a new review into how people from minority backgrounds progress through the labour market.

This review is to be led by Baroness McGregor-Smith and will look at how non-white students fare in employment from the point of recruitment onwards.

The government has targeted the issue of ethnic minority opportunity in a way that no Conservative government has ever done before. This latest review comes on the back of David Lammy’s review into ethnicity and the criminal justice system as well as Louise Casey’s review of integration.

David Cameron set out his ‘BME 2020 vision’ in a speech given in Croydon during the 2015 election campaign. Among other things, it tasks ministers with increasing the number of ‘BME’ students going to university by 20 per cent. This has been stipulated in a green paper published in November of last year.

This is fine except for one significant problem – students from all ethnic minority groups are already more likely to go to university than white British students.

Research by Claire Crawford and Ellen Greaves for the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that 32.6 per cent of white British students went to university. This compares to 67.4 per cent of Indian students, 44.7 per cent of Pakistanis, 56.6 per cent of black Africans, and 37.4 per cent of black Caribbeans.

UCAS application rates are higher for non-whites while in 2013/14, 20.1 per cent of UK domiciled undergraduates were non-white – well in line with what we can expect the non-white population share to be in 2020 and greater than the share of the non-white population of England & Wales aged 18 to 24 in 2011 (19 per cent).

The effect of this policy is that the government has committed itself to furthering ethnic difference. It seems like they have just assumed that non-white ethnic minorities are doing worse just because that is what everyone expects.

The government should abandon this target as non-white minority representation in universities is not really a problem, though there has been an issue with representation in the most prestigious universities for some groups. Instead, policy should be better targeted towards those for whom the rate of university going is lowest – namely white British students from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds of whom 12.8 per cent make it. To be fair, the green paper does acknowledge this problem and the universities minister Jo Johnson has written about it but it is hard to understand why this is not more prominent in the government’s promotion of the policy.

Yes, we want to see a society where ethnic background does not affect your chances in life. But policy making has to be more flexible and be prepared to target the needs of the white British as much as anyone else. To do otherwise will only serve to entrench the cynicism that many white British people feel about policies that prioritise minority opportunity.

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