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UK Minorities More Likely Than Whites to Attend University

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A cyclist is silhouetted in front of Balliol College, founded in 1263. It is one of the oldest colleges of Oxford University in Oxford, England, Friday, Oct. 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A cyclist is silhouetted in front of Balliol College, founded in 1263. It is one of the oldest colleges of Oxford University in Oxford, England, Friday, Oct. 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

For VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report:

A surprising new study says minority students in the UK are more likely to go to college than their poor white classmates.

In fact, poor white British students are the least likely of all groups to go to university.

The researchers said they were surprised by what they found.

White British students did not have the highest educational attainment at school. Attainment means how well the students show knowledge and skills on tests.

Poor white British students' participation rate at university was "much lower" than ethnic minorities.

Ellen Greaves is one of the authors.

'That was a very interesting and surprising finding. The proportion of peoples from Pakistani, from Bangladeshi, from Black Caribbean groups, who all have typically lower attainment on average ... for them to be going in much higher rates on to university was the big surprise.'

Ethnic groups and participation at university
Ethnic groups and participation at university

The researchers first wanted to know which British students went to college. From government data, they measured students' attainment, finances and ethnicity.

Some of the results were predictable, the authors found. Such as, poor students of any ethnic group are less likely to go to college.

And that women are more likely to go to college than men. Or that students from Chinese and Indian families are more likely to go to college than other ethnic groups. That mirrors gender and ethnic proportions in the U.S., too.

Schools in London improve

But if some ethnic minorities are less likely to do well on tests, how are they more likely to attend university?

One reason is that schools in England's large cities, where minorities tend to live, have improved greatly over the past decade. That is particularly true in London. And that may give minorities a better chance at going to college.

Better school policies and programs are likely why schools in London have had success. London Challenge, first established in 2003, and Teach First, first launched in 2002, are two better-known programs.

However, a team of researchers found that London schools started to improve before London Challenge, Teach First and other programs.

They say that even if government programs can explain part of the success of schools in London, they can't explain all of it.

How to interpret the findings?

Some people are pessimistic about the findings of the study. They emphasize that poor white British students are falling behind ethnic minorities. Experts have suggested that white British students are less motivated, or do not have the same expectations about higher education.

Others are optimistic about the findings. They believe that the study shows that immigrants want a better education for their children. Professor Alan Smithers, at Buckingham University, said: "Ethnic minorities value education more than the white British do."

Many immigrants move to a new country with high hopes for their children. They encourage their children to do well in school. As a result, their children become more likely to go to college.

But these stories - whether correct or incorrect - remain difficult to prove. In the UK, many minorities are not immigrants. Studying the motivation of groups of people, regardless of ethnicity, is very difficult.

Greaves, when discussing her findings, was careful with her language.

'Something about these ethnic groups is - whether it's about aspirations or expectations or whatever it is - something is making the disadvantage not be there.'

Discrimination in college admissions?

Even if minorities are more likely to enter college in the UK, there are still concerns about discrimination. Research by Vikki Boliver, from Durham University, suggests that minority students are less likely to receive admissions offers at elite universities.

What the new research shows is that the number of minorities who make it to college, out of the whole group of minorities, is high. Because such a huge number of minorities apply, the proportion of minorities accepted at university is also higher.

International Perspectives

Most countries in the world have difficulty educating all of their citizens.

The US is not immune from this problem.

In the US, minorities, particularly black and Hispanic students, do not do as well in school. They are less likely than white or Asian students to do well on tests. Poverty, health issues, difficult home environments, and language problems are among possible reasons.

Overall, in the US and the UK, there is a similar pattern: Some minority groups score lower on tests. Students from low-income families score lower on tests. They are also less likely to go to college.

Whether discrimination, poverty or bad teaching is behind the problem, the policy question remains the same: What is the best way to improve the quality of education for children and correct for disadvantages?

Researchers Greaves and Claire Crawford, Ph.D, used government data to follow public school students in the UK from 2002 until 2008. Each year, there were around 500,000 new students included in their study.

For VOA Learning English, I'm John Russell. And I'm Jill Robbins.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

What do you think of this story? Is there a similar situation where you live? Write to us in the Comments section or on our Facebook page.

Words in This Story

attainment - n. a skill or ability gained by practice or training

proportion - n. an amount that is a part of a whole

emphasize - v. to give special attention to something

motivate - v. to give (someone) a reason for doing something

disadvantage - n. something that causes difficulty : something that makes someone or something worse or less likely to succeed than others

contradict - v. to say the opposite of (something that someone else has said)

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