Figures published by Oxford University have shown that black and ethnic minority students are underachieving in Finals.
In addition to demonstrating a continuation of Oxford’s age old gender gap, the 2008 breakdown reveals new and worrying patterns of underachievement related to both race and disability. According to the data, fewer black and minority ethnic (BME) students are reaching top grades. In 2008 only 84% of BME students achieved a first or upper second, compared to 93% of white candidates. Likewise, 29% of white students achieved a first, whilst only 9% of black students attained the highest classification.
This is the first time that the University has published a breakdown of the results for Final Honour Schools (Finals) which analyses not only the correlation between gender and achievement, but also examines the attainment of black, ethnic minority and disabled students.
The University maintains that this disparity in achievement is under annual review and emphasises that the gap is not as pronounced as that found nationally. Such comparisons with national statistics are hindered by the very small number of BME students studying at Oxford. Black and minority ethnic students constituted only 15.3% of the total Finals population for 2008, a figure which has prompted criticism of Oxford’s admissions process.
Commenting on the data, Matthew Tye, OUSU Officer for BME Students, stated: “Statistics never reveal a complete picture”, adding “the number of students from black and ethnic minority backgrounds is proportionally small at Oxford, but there are numerous campaigns and college schemes which have been and are doing important outreach work”.
Speaking specifically about the divergence in degree attainment, Tye stated “levels of academic support are exceptionally high at Oxford.” The National Student Survey (NSS) however, indicates that whilst 93% of Oxford’s white students agreed to being satisfied with their course, this was true for only 75% of black students and 88% of Asian undergraduates.
The University breakdown suggests that disabled students also fare badly. Less likely to achieve top grades than those with no known disability, 19% of disabled candidates graduated with a first, compared to 28% of non-disabled students.
However, Danielle Solomon, OUSU’s Officer for Students with Disabilities, highlighted the data’s simplified categorisation of candidates as ‘disabled’ or ‘no known disability’ and pointed out the small number of disabled students taking Finals. “Students with disabilities do not all fall under one umbrella, therefore expecting to find a single reason for the academic performances of students with SPL
Ds and students with hearing difficulties combined (for example) would be somewhat naive.”
The breakdown’s most in-depth analysis, reserved for gender, reveals the divide between the achievements of the sexes remains entrenched. In 2008, only 23% of women graduated with a first, compared to 31% of men. This pattern of relative female underachievement is an inexplicable reversal of national trends, where women are equal to or outperform men at all levels. Other than Cambridge, only three members of the Russell Group have shown significant female underperformance in the past five years.
Unsurprisingly, the statistics for the male-dominated division of MPLS (Maths, Physics and Life Sciences) demonstrates this divergence in attainment, with male candidates more successful in reaching top grades. Yet, even when well-represented, women continue to underperform. Of the total first class degrees awarded by Humanities subjects, only 44% went to women, despite female students making up over 50% of those studying within the division.
While elsewhere in the UK, research is now targeted at male underperformance, Oxbridge is struggling to understand why female undergraduates consistently buck the national trend.
OUSU has identified the often confrontational nature of the Oxbridge tutorial system, organising workshops designed to help students get the most out of this allegedly masculine teaching medium. Sally Mapstone, Chair of the English Faculty, commented: “In conjunction with the Education Committee and OUSU, English, along with other Faculties, also actively encourages initiatives such as study skills and finals forums.”
Some identify differences in exam and revision techniques as factors: an English student at Somerville said, “Perhaps males are merely better at withstanding exam pressure. Finals results are determined very heavily by exam performance.” Another finalist noted, “Girls I’ve known at Uni have been more focused on rote learning and being exact about their facts and figures, which fewer guys seem to work on as much.”
Academics are keen, however, to stress that the gender gap is by no means universal and that even within problem subjects such as PPE, English and History, variations are complex. There is a fear that the attention paid to gender equality issues could be counter-productive, causing clichéd and outdated arguments which may only reinforce incorrect suggestions that women cannot cope with intensive Oxford study.
Sally Mapstone, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Personnel and Equality commented, “work is ongoing and not completed, so it’s not possible, or indeed sensible at present to offer comment as to what might be the reasons for possible underperformance by female candidates.”
It is hoped that disparities in achievement will be illuminated by future research, which will be conducted on a departmental level.