The government’s race watchdog is to tell some of Britain’s top universities to recruit more black students after “racial bias” was found in admissions.
It says it has collated “alarming” figures from government and academic sources that show “segregation” and a worrying racial divide among the student population in many campuses.
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), has ruled out admission quotas to enforce diversity, but he wants to encourage universities to take “positive action”.
A CRE official said: “If you have a black student and a white student with equal qualifications at the front of the admissions queue, we would want the university to take positive action to choose the black student first.”
The commission is to investigate why universities such as Oxford, Bristol, Warwick, York and Durham are selecting so few undergraduate students from black African or Caribbean backgrounds.
It wants universities to become less “colour-coded” and to eradicate any perceived racial bias in admissions policy.
Overall, however, ethnic minority students are more likely than whites to go to university. Research for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) shows that minority ethnic groups comprise 16% of undergraduates in England but 9% of the working population.
Yet nine of the 19 so-called Russell group of elite universities each had fewer than 30 black Caribbean students. The DfES research found that ethnic minority undergraduates comprised fewer than 10% of the student population at about half of Britain’s universities. The ethnic minorities were predominant in former polytechnics, particularly in London.
“There is also some racial bias in admissions at some universities,” the DfES study said.
The CRE said figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) supported recent claims by Phillips that some universities appear to have an unwitting policy of racial discrimination.
In a speech last year Phillips said that Britain was “sleep-walking” into segregation. He accused some unnamed universities of putting out “invisible messages of “no blacks need apply”. Hesa found that 53 of the 165 universities and other institutions surveyed had fewer than 5% of ethnic minority students. Black Caribbean students make up less than 1% of student populations in 123 institutions.
The CRE said that some universities have conversely become almost “blacks only”. It cites DfES research which shows that minority ethnic students are “clustered” around certain universities, mostly the more recently created ones in London.
Figures for 2004 show that of 11 institutions where white students were in a minority, seven are former polytechnics, created after 1992. More than 60% of London Metropolitan University’s students are from ethnic minorities, compared with fewer than 7% at Bristol.
Ethnic minority students are most likely to study computer science, law and medicine, and least likely to take humanities and education courses.
A CRE spokeswoman said: “We plan to investigate the issue of segregation in higher education in more detail, taking into account race as well as class and also the impact of the changing university landscape.
“We are urging universities to be inventive in how they engage and support (ethnic minority) students. There are also pockets of successful ethnic minority students that do well but cannot get into specific universities. So why are they not getting in?”
Phillips blames poor exam results among some ethnic minorities for their failure to get into top universities. The DfES study found that minority ethnic degrees have lower entry qualifications on average and that black students are more likely than whites to get a third or lower class degree.
Spokesmen for Oxford, Bristol, Warwick, York and Durham all denied racial bias. They say their selection procedures do not discriminate against black or Asian applicants.
A spokesman for Oxford, where fewer than 1% of students are black, said: “Our policy of selection is based solely on academic merit and potential.”
Bristol, where 0.8% of undergraduates are black, said: “We look for the students with the greatest ability, motivation and potential. Ever since its foundation, the university has had an explicit commitment to equality.”