< Previous page ^ Table of Contents Next page >

The undergraduate experience among three ethnic minority groups: Notice

13 March 2006

The Council and General Board believe that the information in the summary document annexed to this Notice will be of interest in the University and therefore publish it.

The Joint Committee on Academic Performance, which was established by the Council and the General Board to act as a central focus for discussion of matters relating to performance in Tripos examinations and to make recommendations as appropriate to the central bodies and the Senior Tutors' Committee, commissioned a research project, overseen by the Joint Committee, entitled 'The undergraduate experience of Cambridge among three ethnic minority groups'. The project was completed in 2005 on the submission of a substantial report by Dr J. Scales and Dr J. M. Whitehead.

The Joint Committee commissioned the present summary. The Council and General Board note the generally positive findings of the research, in terms of the academic performance and overall education experience of the groups studied, and the finding that ethnicity is not in itself a factor determining academic performance. They note also that the research focused on relative levels of performance within the three ethnic groups studied, and that the recommendations made at the end of the summary may apply equally to certain students from all ethnic groups.

The appropriate intercollegiate bodies are considering the findings of the research, including the recommendations at the end of the summary.

The undergraduate experience of Cambridge among three ethnic minority groups: Summary report submitted to the Joint Committee on Academic Performance

Terms of reference

This project was funded by the Joint Committee on Academic Performance (JCAP) in response to concerns about the academic performance of specific British minority ethnic groups at Cambridge.

Achievement and ethnicity

Analysis of examination results at the University of Cambridge has revealed substantial differences in academic achievement between different British ethnic groups (see table 1). The results show that, within the Cambridge system, three ethnic groups do less well than the others. These are Black Caribbean, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students, who are much less likely than White, Chinese, and Indian students to gain a first class or 2:1 degree; only 59%, 59.5%, and 62% of Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean, and Pakistani home students achieved a 1st/2:1 degree between 2000 and 2003 compared to over 77% of White students, 76% of Chinese students, and 70.5% of Indian students.

Table 1. University of Cambridge examination results for years 2001, 2002, 2003 combined by ethnic group

Ethnicity1st/2:1
number
1st/2:1
percentage
2:2/3rd
number
2:2/3rd
percentage
White14,55777.25%4,28322.75%
Chinese78176%24624%
Indian59870.5%25029.5%
Pakistani9962%6138%
Bangladeshi4359%3041%
Black British - Caribbean4459.5%3040.5%
Black British - African10772.3%4127.7%

National statistics on academic performance

The lower performance of Black Caribbean, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students reflects performance in the education system generally. In the Research Topic Paper 'Race research for the future. Ethnicity in education, training, and the labour market' (DfES, March, 2000) the authors report that:

Bangladeshi, Black and Pakistani pupils perform less well than other pupils in the early key stages ... (they) also tend to achieve significantly less by the end of compulsory schooling. (p. 1).

Although achievement is likely to be influenced by a large number of factors, the authors draw particular attention to social class. There is a strong relationship between school achievement and socio-economic disadvantage, irrespective of ethnicity, which explains much of the variation in school performance. They point out that Indians in Britain are usually of higher social class than the Bangladeshi population, which suffers severe economic disadvantage, and that Indian pupils outperform Bangladeshi pupils. The authors add that:

It also is the case that young people from Chinese, Indian, and White backgrounds are more likely than others to attend high performing independent and grant-maintained schools. (p. 5).

The article also quotes statistics for Higher Education, provided by HESA, which show that a lower proportion of ethnic minority students obtain a first or upper second class degree than White graduates, across the university sector as a whole. The authors go on to say that:

More research is needed to establish whether this is related to factors such as socio-economic or previous educational background. (p. 10)

The latest figures from HESA are given below (Table 2).

Table 2. Class of degree by ethnicity - national figures compared to Cambridge

EthnicityCambridge
1st/2:1 %
National
1st/2:1 %
Cambridge
2:2/3rd %
National
2:2/3rd %
White77.25%54.2%22.7%38.55%
Chinese76%44%24%49%
Indian70.5%39%29.5%40%
Pakistani62%32.2%38%58%
Bangladeshi59%36%41%58%
Black British - Caribbean59.5%32%40.5%64%
Black British - African72.3%26%27.7%70%

Higher Education Statistics Agency 2004

Information on ethnic minority students given in the Research Topic Paper also suggests other factors that might be involved. Ethnic minority students are much more likely to be taking subjects leading to qualifications in the more traditional professions e.g. law or medicine. Anecdotal evidence exists from a number of sources that many parents within the ethnic minority community are particularly keen for their children to enter such professions. It could well be that some of the students who are studying these subjects do so with little enthusiasm or aptitude and consequently do not achieve as highly as they may have done had they been 'allowed' to do other subjects. The paper also points out that Black undergraduates are disproportionately likely to be mature students: only a fifth are aged under 21, compared with nearly half of White undergraduates, and over half are aged 25 or over, compared with just over a third of White students.

Comparisons with the University of Cambridge

The statistics quoted from HESA show very clearly that all students at Cambridge perform well above the national average, whatever their ethnicity. The three lowest performing groups at Cambridge (Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani) not only perform well above the level of ethnic minority students nationally but also outperform White students nationally. It is also clear that the negligible gap between White, Chinese, and Indian students at Cambridge is not a feature of the national picture. Part of the explanation for this must lie in the fact that students who come to Cambridge are all, in terms of A level results, high achievers. However, the high level of pastoral care and academic support given students at Cambridge, as demonstrated by the very low drop-out/failure rate, must also be playing a part.

Figures from Cambridge indicate that putting all ethnic minority students into just one group is misleading as many groups perform equally as well as White students. However, although a minority of students from all ethnic groups are not doing as well as their peers, it is clear that this proportion is significantly higher in three groups of students: Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani, where the numbers being awarded 2:2s and 3rds is approximately 20% higher than for other groups of students. While it is clearly important to find out why this is the case, it must not be forgotten that the majority of students from these groups are clearly thriving in the Cambridge environment and doing well - possibly better than they would do elsewhere. It is this contrast between those who are doing well and those who are doing less well within a particular ethnic group that is the focus of this research report.

Research aims

1. To identify the factors that are connected to differing undergraduate academic performance at Cambridge within Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Black British home student groups, by comparing those whose academic performance is high with those who do less well within each group.

2. To gain a wider understanding of the characteristics of students from these backgrounds, and to identify their influence, if any, on academic performance.

3. To gain a better understanding of the experiences of students from these backgrounds, whilst they are at Cambridge, and to identify specific issues which affect them, along with the ways in which these may have an impact on their academic performance.

Research methods

Two methods were used to collect the data. A questionnaire survey was undertaken of all students in the target groups, covering the following topics: educational and socio-economic background, the students' financial situation and their perception of that situation, motivation for entering higher education, and influences on choice of degree subject and institution. Interviews were held with a subset of students who had completed the questionnaire to explore further the themes from the questionnaire. The questionnaire had also been used by the Newton Trust Bursary Evaluation team on a large random sample of students drawn from the whole student body. This allowed some comparisons to be made between the students from the three ethnic groups and the student body as a whole (Whitehead, Raffan, and Kettley, forthcoming). Where comparisons are made in the discussion below, it is with this group of students.

The sample

All home undergraduate students who identified themselves as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black African, Black Caribbean, or mixed White-Black background on their Cambridge admission documentation formed the population for this study. In total 133 students were identified from the Student Records database. All students in the target groups were invited to complete the questionnaire and were asked if they would be willing to be interviewed.

A total of 79 students completed the questionnaire, giving a response rate of 60%. Survey respondents were broadly representative of the target survey population in terms of ethnicity, gender, year of study, and previous examination performance. In-depth, face-to-face interviews were carried out with 50 students from these ethnic groups. Interviews lasted between 45 minutes and one and a half hours. Interviews explored a range of themes including those from the questionnaire (family background, school experiences, motivations for entering higher education, reasons for applying to Cambridge) but also looked in detail at the students' experiences at Cambridge.

Results

Characteristics of the students

Home background

Overall, 41% of survey respondents were from professional family backgrounds, 24% from intermediate occupational backgrounds, and 35% from 'working-class' backgrounds (Rose and O'Reilly 1998). Bangladeshi respondents were most likely to say they were from 'working-class' backgrounds (44%). In comparison with the student body as a whole these students are much less likely to come from a 'middle-class' background.

However, there were wide variations in the characteristics of ethnic minority students in terms of their background. These were apparent both between the three ethnic groups and within ethnic groups. Prior to arriving at Cambridge around 90% of Bangladeshi and Pakistani survey respondents had been living at home with two parents. By contrast, less than 50% of Black respondents came from two-parent homes. Less than half of Bangladeshi respondents' fathers were in paid work compared to 85% of Pakistani fathers. Less than 30% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi respondents' mothers were in paid work compared to 94% of Black respondents' mothers.

Some ethnic minority students reported that they had complex obligations to their wider family. This is especially true for Bangladeshi and Pakistani female students who are often obliged to spend time with extended family members during vacations. This often meant that they could not always 'consolidate' the academic work they had done during the term by further reading and academic work during the vacation, putting them at an academic disadvantage relative to their peers.

Students reported that coming to Cambridge often resulted in major lifestyle transitions. This was especially true of Pakistani and Bangladeshi students who said that they had much greater freedom at Cambridge than at home.

Education

Of the respondents in the survey, 57% had attended comprehensive schools, 32% had attended independent schools, and 11% had attended grammar or grant-maintained schools. Bangladeshi students were the most likely to have attended comprehensive schools (72%) and Pakistani students the most likely to have been to independent schools (48%). Qualitative interviews suggest that the majority of Bangladeshi and Pakistani students who had been to comprehensive schools attended inner city schools with generally poor academic results and typically characterized as having high levels of ethnic minority pupils.

Higher education choices

Ethnic minority survey respondents were more likely to rate extrinsic motivation as one of the main reasons for entering higher education and applying to Cambridge than a comparative sample of all Cambridge students. These reasons include the prestige of Cambridge, influence of parents, and the benefits of a degree for their career. Ethnic minority students are also considerably more likely than White students to choose degree subjects that are directly vocational such as law, medicine, engineering, or veterinary science; 26% of all Cambridge students study one of these subjects compared to 35% of Pakistani students, 50% of Bangladeshi students, and 38% of Black students. Interviewees suggested that amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups in particular there is a strong parental expectation that they will study subjects leading to high status careers such as medicine and law.

'Fitting in' at Cambridge

Prior to arriving at Cambridge the majority of students from ethnic minority backgrounds perceived Cambridge to be 'upper class' and 'elitist' with most students coming from White 'middle-class', and wealthy backgrounds. Not surprisingly, therefore, the main factor that ethnic minority students said discouraged them from applying to Cambridge was fear of 'not fitting in'; 17% said they were very discouraged by the fear of not fitting in and a further 33% said they were somewhat discouraged by it. Many of the interviewees, however, said they had been persuaded to apply to Cambridge, despite their fears, as a result of the University's outreach programme.

Preconceptions of Cambridge, however, were modified after arrival, with most respondents saying that they had found substantial social diversity, although most ethnic minorities respondents felt there was little ethnic diversity. Most interviewees said that they were enjoying their time at Cambridge and that they felt they had a good social network of friends. None of the respondents said they had experienced any overt racism or discrimination at Cambridge from teaching staff, and only very rarely from other students. Respondents typically appreciated the special nature of the Cambridge educational system and the amount of academic and pastoral support they received from the Colleges.

Some interviewees did mention that initially they had found it difficult to fit in at Cambridge. The three main factors that interviewees said impacted on fitting in revolved around ethnicity, social class background, and the high profile of alcohol-related socializing. In the course of interviews the following points were raised by the students:

Student finances

The vast majority of students (77%) had taken out a student loan. Over half of the students (53%) received some funding from the LEA, of whom 40% were in receipt of a Newton Trust bursary, figures that are higher than for the student body as a whole. Parental contribution was identified by many students as a significant source of funding; 29% of survey respondents said that their parents paid all the costs of their education, a further 39% said their parents paid some of their costs at Cambridge, while 32% said their parents made no contribution to their education. The number of students receiving no parental contribution is also higher than the student body as a whole. About 40% of them undertook paid work during the vacations to supplement the costs of studying at Cambridge. This is lower than for the student body as a whole, 56% of whom said that they had to work to fund their education. Students were also asked about their perceptions of their financial situation. 20% of students said that they did not have enough money to do the things they wanted to at Cambridge with a similar percentage saying they worried about money all, or some of, the time. These figures are higher than those for the student body as a whole where 13.9% said they worried about money all, or some of, the time, and a similar percentage that they did not have enough money to do the things they wanted to at Cambridge.

Academic performance

Some problems were encountered in looking at the relationship between the above variables and academic performance. In the group of students who did not respond to our invitation to take part in the research more of them were in the lower achieving group than the high achieving group. This was disappointing, but perhaps inevitable. However, although based on a relatively small number of cases, the data gathered from the questionnaire survey provide some insights into the key factors and processes that differentiate between levels of academic performance at Cambridge for these groups. Because of the limitations of the data, due to the small numbers in the survey sample, the analysis was based on examination results grouped into two categories; those who achieved a 1st or 2:1 and those who achieved a 2:2 and below. Where possible, the results from examinations taken in 2005 were used as indicators of academic performance. For those students who had not taken Tripos examinations in 2005 the previous year's examination results were used.

Background factors and examination results

Overall in this sample 54% of the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Black home student population at Cambridge gained a 1st or 2:1 result in their most recent examinations and 46% a 2:2 or below. This compares to 72% of the Cambridge undergraduate population as a whole who gained a 1st or 2:1 and 18% who achieved a 2:2 or below in examinations in 2005 (Examination Results Statistics 2005). There were, however, differences by ethnic group; 45% of Pakistani and 46% of Bangladeshi students gained a 1st or 2:1 in their most recent Tripos examinations compared to 67% of Black students. Mixed Black/White students appeared to do the best with 73% gaining a 1st or 2:1.

When divided by gender, it is apparent that, overall, women are substantially more likely to gain a 2:1 degree or higher than men, amongst ethnic minority students. Amongst Pakistani students the proportion of men achieving a 2:1 or higher falls to 42% compared to 56% for women. Bangladeshi males have the lowest proportion of 1st or 2:1 examination results at 38% compared to 60% of Bangladeshi women; 63% of Black male students achieved a 1st/2:1 result compared to 71% of Black female students. These results reflect national figures for the same groups (HESA Statistics op. cit.).

In terms of student background there was no significant difference between high- and low-achievers in terms of parental occupation, coming from a single-parent family, or type of school attended. These results reflect those found for the student body as a whole (Leman 1999, Whitehead 2003).

The fact that the type of school attended did not relate to academic performance was slightly surprising given that many of the interviewees expressed the view that having been to an independent school was advantageous to their degree course, and in particular helped them make the transition to university study. If independent schools provide a better platform from which to undertake a degree at Cambridge, it raises the question of why there is not a wider difference in examination performance at Cambridge between students within our sample from state and public schools. One possible interpretation revolves around the calibre and performance of those who have 'made it' to Cambridge from the state school sector, often from not very good schools. Some ethnic minority students have made considerable personal journeys in order to get to Cambridge, often overcoming considerable disadvantage, compared to the seemingly smooth progress of those from independent schools. The added motivation and ability, whilst not always fully reflected in the number of A level grades achieved at school, may go some way to explaining the low level of difference in performance at Cambridge between pupils from the different types of schools.

The ethnic minority sample differed from the student population as a whole in their A and A/S level results. A significant number of these students come with, in Cambridge terms, poor examination results: 18.4% (7) men and 26.3% (10) women had fewer than three A grades at A level, which probably reflects the fact, as mentioned earlier, that many of these students came from inner-city schools at the lower end of the academic performance tables. There is, however, wide variation within the sample itself, with some very successful students at the other end of the spectrum of A level results. The number of A and A/S level 'A' grades, however, did not relate to Tripos results within the ethnic groups; amongst those with three or fewer grade 'A' grades at A levels, 63% gained a 2:1 or above in their most recent examinations compared to 69% of those with four, and 63% of those with five or more grade 'A' A levels respectively.

In terms of background factors, therefore, we cannot identify any significant differences between those who perform well at Cambridge and those who do less well.

Motivation for higher education and examination results

In looking at this variable we were able to compare this sample of students with a national sample of students, surveyed in Year 13, who had applied to Cambridge (n=138) from the Newton Trust work (Whitehead, Raffan, and Deaney, forthcoming 2006). The main factor that encouraged ethnic minority students to come to Cambridge was the fact that it is a prestigious institution: 76% said this factor encouraged them very much, compared with 68% of the national sample. They were also encouraged by the earning power of a Cambridge degree, 35% compared with 26% of the national sample. They were further encouraged by the fact that getting a place at Cambridge would be regarded as an achievement - 53% compared with 39%. Conversely, they were less likely to cite 'academic' factors as influential: only 33% of them said they wanted to study further a subject they enjoyed, compared with 56% of the national sample; 53 % of them cited enjoyment of the academic challenge of a degree course as influential, compared with 73% of the national sample; only 33% cited liking the course content as encouraging them compared with 62% of the national sample. Liking the teaching methods, particularly supervisions, was cited by 48% of them as an encouraging factor compared with 64% of the national sample. The other main difference was in the fitting in dimension: 20% of the national sample were encouraged to apply to Cambridge by the belief that they would fit in compared with only 11% of the ethnic minority sample.

Taking all of these factors together, we can see that ethnic minority students appear to have different attitudes towards higher education and Cambridge than other students. They appear to be more career oriented, to be more influenced by parents than other students, and to be more attracted to Cambridge by its prestige. Academic matters such as course content, methods of teaching, challenge of academic work, and studying subjects they have enjoyed seem to be less important to ethnic minority students. They could, therefore, be described as higher in extrinsic motivation (the benefits of a degree and encouraged by others) rather than intrinsic motivation (interest in academic work for its own sake).

There was, however, wide variation within the ethnic minority students on the above variables, which were related to examination results. Students who were more intrinsically motivated had significantly better examination results. Those who were encouraged to enter higher education because they thought they would enjoy the academic challenge of a degree course tended to do better, with 68% of these respondents gaining a 1st or 2:1 compared to 50% for whom this was not an important motivation. Amongst those who said that wanting to study a new subject was an important factor for entering higher education, 77% achieved 1st or 2:1 results compared to 52% of those who said this was of little or no influence.

Choice of subject

There are some indications in the data that choice of subject may have an impact on examination results; these indications do not reach statistical significance, possibly because of the small sample size, but they do suggest that this may be an area for further study. Those taking vocational subjects (law, medicine, engineering, and veterinary medicine) were slightly less likely to get a 1st or 2:1 than those studying non-vocational subjects, 47% compared with 58%. As discussed above, there was evidence from the interviews that in the case of some students there had been considerable pressure from parents to study vocational subjects leading to particular careers, particularly those of law and medicine. It could be the case, therefore, that there are some students who are studying subjects for extrinsic reasons, mainly parental expectations, which are perhaps not as congenial to them as other subjects would have been, thus lowering performance. The results here are far from conclusive but they do merit further investigation.

'Fitting in' at Cambridge and academic performance

As discussed above, fitting in at Cambridge was a major issue for a number of students. Within the survey data, a strong, statistically significant, relationship exists between being discouraged from applying to Cambridge by the fear of not 'fitting in' socially and examination results. Only 52% of those who said they were discouraged from applying to Cambridge because of fears about not fitting in got a 1st or 2:1 compared with 79% of those who had no such fears.

Financial issues and academic performance

Analysis of the questionnaire data showed that a number of financial issues strongly, and consistently, relate to academic performance at Cambridge; these are perceptions of financial situation, sources of funding, and employment.

In terms of perceptions two factors stand out: only 47% of those who said there were 'lots of things they can't afford' in day-to-day life gained a 1st or 2:1 compared to 77% of those who said they 'have enough money to do everything they want', with those who say they can manage as long as they 'budget carefully' coming in between these two figures with 60% gaining a 1st or 2:1. Similarly, of those who said they worry about their financial situation 'a lot' only 51% got a 1st or 2:1 compared with 89% of those who said they 'do not worry about their financial situation'. There are similarities between these results and those from the Newton Trust sample, in that the minority of students who perceive themselves to be financially very badly off, worry about their financial situation, have a very low sense of well-being, and believe that their academic work is affected by financial constraints, do significantly less well academically than other students.

In terms of how students are actually funded, only one factor has a significant relationship with examination results - that is parental contribution. Those who receive money directly from their parents are much more likely to gain good examination results. 74% of those who receive money from their parents got a 1st or 2:1 compared with only 45% of those who receive no money from their parents. Students who receive no financial contribution from their parents are funded through a combination of money from the LEA, student loans, and bursaries. This result, therefore, may be reflecting difference in levels of funding rather than simply the source of funding, with the 'better off' students, more likely to have parental funding, doing better academically than students who find it harder to study on a marginal income. Such an explanation seems highly likely when we consider the final variable that had a significant relationship with examination results: that of vacation employment.

The survey questionnaire asked respondents if they needed to undertake paid work in order to fund their education. This almost always occurred during vacations. Vacation working showed a strong significant relationship with examination performance. Only 48% of those who undertook paid vacation work to fund their education achieved good examinations grades compared to 78% of those who did not. Further analysis showed that the key variable was the number of hours worked in paid employment. Those working fewer than 35 hours a week in vacations have examination results similar to those who do not need to do paid work. Those, however, who do more than 35 hours a week are the ones with the lower performance.

Given the short terms, and the need to supplement term-time study with vacation study, the impact of vacation-time paid work is obvious. The interview material suggested that for some students, however, the need to supplement their income outweighed the implications for their degree work. The interview material also suggested that the type of vacation work was important. For some students, the necessity to work long hours in low paid service sector jobs definitely had an impact on their ability to carry out vacation study. For other students, vacation working can be linked to their degree studies through internships. Typically, internships pay a good monthly wage and can have a positive impact on motivation to study through the development of future career potential. Internships were especially prevalent amongst law, engineering, and economics students. It is interesting to note that working in the vacations was not significantly related to examination results for the student body as a whole at Cambridge.

Conclusion

It is difficult to identify any single specific factor that determines academic performance of ethnic minority students at Cambridge.

The survey data along with the interview data does, however, strongly suggest that ethnicity is in itself not a factor that determines academic performance at Cambridge. The research gave no indication of institutional discrimination against ethnic minorities, and indeed the common view amongst interviewees is that very high levels of support are given to all students by the University and the Colleges, regardless of ethnicity.

Rather, academic performance is likely to be a recursive process, driven by the cumulative effects of complex interactions of a number of student characteristics.

The key elements of strong academic performance appear to consist of:

By contrast, those whose academic performance at Cambridge is weaker are likely to show:

Academic spirals of performance

It seems likely that these key elements can have cumulative effects and can drive 'spirals' of academic success or failure.

For example, a student who has taken a degree subject because of parental expectation rather than a self-driven interest in the subject may have low levels of intrinsic motivation. If this student has a self-perception that they do not fit into Cambridge, motivation may become even lower - with the lack of a support network and friends leading to feelings of social isolation. If these factors are combined with severe financial hardship or constant worry about financial issues (and/or perhaps the necessity to work during vacations), it seems likely that academic performance could spiral downwards.

By contrast, students arriving at Cambridge with strong intrinsic motivation, who perceive themselves as fitting in and have a network of friends, who have strong financial support, particularly from parents, and who have few, if any, worries about money are likely to generate an upward spiral of academic performance.

Obviously, between these two 'ideal' types there are a multitude of differing combinations of personal circumstances and characteristics - some of which may pull in opposite directions and so cancel out each other's effects. For example, negative effects of financial hardship may be mitigated by a student having a strong sense of fitting in or high levels of personal intrinsic motivation.

The other issue that appears to be related to academic achievement among the groups studied is gender - males in these groups do less well at Cambridge, and nationally, than females (HESA 2004). The sample we had was too small to do any detailed analysis by gender, but it is certainly an area for further research. Two possible explanations come to mind. It could be the case that more males than females have the characteristics that are associated with lower performance. Alternatively it could be that males cope less well than females with adverse circumstances. There is evidence from the research on the student body as a whole to support the second of these explanations - in the group that perceive themselves to be operating under financial hardship, males have significantly lower examination results than females. Why this should be the case is far from clear.

Many of the above factors also contribute to lower achievement among the student body as a whole. The higher number of lower achieving students in the three ethnic minority groups that have been the subject of this research is likely, therefore, to be a product of certain key characteristics being distributed more widely amongst these groups than the student population generally. The study has identified 'fitting in' as an important variable and, while some of the factors identified in this study related to ethnicity, there may be other factors that militate against 'fitting in' for other groups. In conclusion, therefore, it would appear that the higher number of lower achieving students in these groups is not a function of ethnicity per se, or of institutional discrimination, but is related to the fact that more of the students in these groups are subject to the particular combination of characteristics, many of which are beyond their control, that undermine academic performance.

Recommendations

The recommendations below are aimed at ameliorating some of the difficulties identified by the experiences of ethnic minority students through the research data derived from the survey and the interviews. We recognize that these recommendations may apply equally to students from other ethnic groups who may share the characteristics identified as undermining academic performance.

1. Some students are in situations of severe financial hardship. Amongst these students are a number from single-parent families and larger families whose parents are less likely to be able to offer them financial help and support. Many of them have to work in the vacations to support themselves. Further ways of offering students, in the worst financial situations, additional funding could be explored.

2. Amongst some ethnic minority students, complex family obligations during the vacations can lead to little academic work being done during the vacation. Ways could be investigated of offering these students accommodation in Cambridge beyond the end of term or before the start of term, in order to give them the personal 'space' to supplement their term time studies.

3. For Muslim students especially, the prevalence of alcohol at social events can lead to a sense of being excluded from the social life of many College and University social and sporting events. The number of social events without alcohol could be increased. This would be especially effective during Fresher's week, as this was identified by respondents as a critical time for developing a sense of 'belonging' at Cambridge.

Halal food should be available in College canteens, to respond to the needs of Muslim students.

Acknowledgements

Our thanks and appreciation are extended to all those who took part in the research, particularly those who participated in the interviews and who engaged so openly about their experiences at Cambridge.

We would also like to thank all of the Colleges, Faculties, and Departments who assisted this project by providing interview rooms, often at very short notice. We particularly acknowledge the help of the Admissions Office, the Faculty of Law, and King's College in this regard.

Finally, many thanks to the steering committee of the research project for their interest and support over the course of this project.

Dr JONATHAN SCALES and Dr JOAN M. WHITEHEAD
Faculty of Education, September 2005

References

Leman, P. (1999). 'The role of subject area, gender, ethnicity, and school background in the degree results of Cambridge University undergraduates', The Curriculum Journal. 10 (2) pp. 231-52.

Rose D., O'Reilly K. (1998). The ESRC Review of Government Social Classifications. Office for National Statistics and ESRC.

Whitehead J. M. (2003). Summary report of the findings of the project on indicators of academic performance. Cambridge University Reporter, 2002-03 p. 572.

Whitehead J. M., Raffan J., Deaney R. (forthcoming 2006). 'University choice: what influences the decisions of academically successful post-16 students'. Higher Education Quarterly.

Whitehead J. M., Raffan J., Kettley N. (in preparation). 'The impact of differential funding on academic work, achievement, and social life'.


< Previous page ^ Table of Contents Next page >

Cambridge University Reporter 15 March 2006
Copyright © 2006 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.