24.4% of all students received a First this yearLouis Ashworth

Statistics from last year’s examinations have revealed a wide attainment gap between ethnic groups, analysis by Varsity has revealed.

The percentage of black students backgrounds who achieved a First in their Tripos exams fell this year, against the background of a slight uptick in Firsts across all students.

The figures, which take into account examination results achieved by undergraduates in all years, show that only 10.5% of students who identify as “Black or Black British - African” were awarded a First in 2017, less than half of the overall average of 24.4%, while no students who identity as “Black or Black British - Caribbean” or “Other Black background” received the top grade.

Statistics further show that Black African and Caribbean students are collectively twice as likely to receive a Lower Second or a Third than average.

Analysis of the class lists for last year’s undergraduate exam results has found marked disparities in the level of academic achievement across different groups and subjects. Varsity found:

• The black attainment gap, in terms of percentage point difference in the proportion students achieving Firsts, has grown from 13.0% to 16.2% compared with last year

• The gender attainment gap is also widening, with men receiving 12.2% more Firsts than women

• 37.5% of students studying Education were given a First, while only 11% of Lawyers received the top mark

The lack of samples large enough to give a truly representative picture also complicates this issue. A total of 1,180 Chinese students are recorded as having sat an exam last year, the number of Bangladeshi students was just 49.

The widening of the black attainment gap come following criticism of Oxbridge’s admissions statistics by David Lammy MP, who called the universities “fiefdoms of entrenched privilege,” with a majority population of well-off white students. His analysis of admissions statistics showed that a quarter of Cambridge colleges made no offers to black students from 2010–2015.

Analysis by higher education blog and think-tank Wonkhe of national statistics for grades obtained during the 2015-16 academic year suggests that Cambridge’s black attainment gap is not a statistical anomaly, but an issue that is present across the higher education sector.

Six universities, including the Russell Group universities of Oxford and Exeter, awarded no firsts to black undergraduates, and at no university did the grades awarded to black home undergraduates exceed those of their white peers. A smaller, but still noticeable, gap exists in the awarding of 2.i grades, but Wonkhe suggests that this is simply indicative of the wider attainment gap at first class level.

Last year’s statistics for Cambridge, however, show that, proportionally, more black students achieved 2.i grades than the average across the cohort. 50.3% of black students achieved a 2.i grade, whereas 45.9% of all Cambridge students achieved the same.

The underlying reasons the attainment gap for black students are difficult to identify, and are likely to be influenced by a variety of factors. A study conducted by the Department for Education in 2007 found that a significant gap remained, even after adjustments were made for things like the type of university attended, prior attainment and poverty. Statistics published by The Economist suggest that black students are more likely to drop out than their counterparts from other ethnic groups.


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Former CUSU president, and current NUS vice-president for Higher Education Amatey Doku ran for his latest position on a manifesto aimed at “tackling institutional racism in campuses with specific focus on the black attainment gap and encouraging the higher education sector as a whole to face up to it.”

In a series of tweets following Lammy’s announcement, Doku said that “right from early years, the whole system is stacked against black people”.

He continued, “Before Oxbridge can point the finger further down the pipeline, they must demonstrate that they have done everything they can.”

He also suggested that research institutions should “fund extensive research into tackling this issue”.

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