Ethnicity awarding gap in first-class honours grows

The disparity between the percentage of Black and white students achieving firsts increased between 2015 and 2021

Latest figures show that the number of Black and Asian students achieving top degrees has improved in recent years – but white students are statistically more likely to achieve a first.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) released UK student statistics for 2020/21 on 10 February.

They show that the overall ethnicity awarding gap of students achieving top degrees shrunk last year – but disparities worsened in the number of first-class degrees awarded.

A greater proportion of Black and Asian students received a first or 2:1 degree in 2021 than six years ago. The resulting awarding gap – the difference between White, and Black and Asian students achieving top degrees – has shrunk.

In 2014/15, 49% of Black students and 60% of Asian students achieved a first or 2:1, compared to 72% of white students. By 2020/21, 65% of Black and 75% of Asian students achieved a first or 2:1, compared to 82% of white students.

It means that – in the last six years – the awarding gap for Black students shrunk by 6.5 percentage points and Asian students by 5.4 percentage points.

But the disparity in the number of Black and white students achieving a first-class honours degree has grown.

A greater number of Black students receive first-class degrees than six years ago – and they comprise a large percentage of all first-class students than in 2014/15 – but Black students as a cohort were less likely than white students to achieve a first.

During the pandemic years – 2020 and 2021 – the number of first-class degrees increased significantly. The percentage of firsts jumped from 28% in 2018/19 to 36% in 2020/21.

Though the percentage of white and Black students achieving a 2:1 is almost the same (44% and 45%, respectively) – the percentage of white and Black students achieving a first is considerably different (37% and 19%, respectively).

This disparity in firsts has widened since 2014/15.

While the percentage of Black students achieving a first has risen by 10 percentage points, the percentage of white students rose by 14.5 percentage points.

It means that – while the awarding gap has closed in the proportion of 2:1s awarded to Black and white students – the awarding gap in firsts has grown.

Advance HE suggested last year the smaller ethnicity awarding gap in the number of firsts and 2:1s was tied to Covid exam policies. Writing in October 2021, Panagiota Sotiropoulou, a researcher for Advance HE, said it was unclear if this trend would persist. “The decrease in the white-black, Asian and minority ethnic awarding gap possibly reflects the greater (and, as some would claim, fairer and more flexible) use of results from coursework and continuous exams to determine qualification awards [and] as a result of the ‘no detriment’ policies adopted by many UK HEIs.”

Read more: Smaller ethnicity awarding gap tied to Covid exam policies, Advance HE suggests

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