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Supporting Black students to progress to selective universities

In the UK, there is a growing desire to ‘level-up’ or widen participation of young people accessing higher education. There is a particular focus on the progression of students from underrepresented groups (such as those in low progression areas) accessing more selective universities, such as those in the Russell Group. However, what many people do not realise is that there is also a focus on supporting ethnic minority groups to attend selective universities too.

Many widening participation teams are focusing their attention on supporting students from non-white backgrounds. Non-white students are in a minority in HE - in the 2018 to 2019 academic year, of the 554,445 students who started an undergraduate degree in the UK, 413,895 of those were white - that’s just under 75% of the total intake. By comparison, 11.5% of students were Asian, 7.9% were Black and 4.2% of Mixed heritage. Black students are less likely than white students to progress to more selective, high-tariff universities and in 2015, a mere 2,740 Black students progressed to Russell Group Universities.  

When addressing these figures, It is important to acknowledge individual groups, rather than simply compare those who are white with those who are non-white (often labelled as ‘BAME’). Each of these communities is different and therefore should be recognised individually to ensure accuracy of reporting and understanding. With this in mind, the focus of this blog will be to give greater insight to the potential barriers faced by Black students, and how we can support their progression to higher education. 

Educational barriers

In January 2020, the BBC reported that exclusions for racism in England’s primary schools were rising at a rate of 40% in the last ten years. From a young age, children are exposed to racial slurs, microaggressions and segregation due to their skin colour. This in turn, not only affects the wellbeing of our young people, but their education. Black Caribbean pupils are three and half times more likely to be excluded than their peers. School pupils have staged protests against school uniform policies which they feel ‘punish’ Black children, with a lack of cultural understanding, and that this often leads to exclusions.

For children who continue to have access to school, there is growing conversation about the content of the curriculum. Many young people, and adults alike, have voiced their concerns over the white-centric, and even Euro-centric nature of the curriculum in schools. Although there are some opportunities to learn about Black cultures, communities, and figures, often they may focus on hardships - in partciular slavery - without many celebratory additions of Black history. There have been calls to decolonise the curriculum, and Black students have expressed their desire to learn about their history as well as educate their peers. It is hoped a deeper understanding of this culture will decrease ignorance and racism. 

It is not only the school curriculum, but the educators of this curriculum which have sparked conversation. In 2019, 85.7% of all teachers in state-funded schools in England were White British, while only 2.3% were Black. In 2020, The Guardian reported that 46% of all schools in England did not have any non-white teachers in their workforce. Sadly, this trend only continues within higher education, with only 1% of 23,000 university professors in the UK coming from a Black background. Given the lack of role models in the classroom and in the curriculum, we can begin to see why many Black students feel disconnected to their education. 

Attainment Gap
The next in a long line of issues, then, is the attainment gap. Universities UK and the National Union of Students released a joint report which reported that in 2017, 57% of Black graduates received a first or 2:1, compared to 81% of their white peers. This should not be mistaken as a lack of capability, but rather a lack of an inclusive educational environment which allows students to thrive. It has been suggested, that the ‘attainment gap’ should instead be referred to as the ‘awarding gap’ in recognition of the multiple factors which affect these figures, including institutional structures and discrimination.  

Despite these barriers, Black students do and should progress onto higher education, if this is their desired path. But which universities? Due to the lack of regional diversity, many Black students feel unwelcome in several regions (outside of London). Although there are many university choices around the UK, including a wide array of Russell Group institutions, some students feel that the predominantly white population of their cities or universities is not suitable for them.  

Addressing these barriers

Having addressed these educational concerns, it seems pertinent to now address how we can support young people facing these barriers. Here are some suggestions: 

1. Provide a welcoming and inclusive environment at school  
Do you understand and educate yourself (and your colleagues) about issues faced by your young people? Does this encompass your uniform policy? Does your school have a racism policy and is this being implemented effectively? How can you highlight these policies to ensure students feel safe and listened to? How can you celebrate holidays and events of cultural importance? You could use the CIPD’s inclusion calendar for inspiration.  

2. Engage with and encourage curriculum pieces by varied authors and figures  
Can you advocate for more diversity within the curriculum? Have you considered sources you can bring into the classroom to support you - such as The Black Curriculum?  

3. Consider wellbeing and mental health  
Due to racism and discrimination, young Black people may face additional wellbeing and mental health concerns. Consider what you have in place to support this? Are you aware of useful and local resources and helplines to signpost them to? A good starting point might be YoungMinds.  

4. Creating access for role models and relatable figures  
If you do not currently have these in your school workforce, how can you advocate for this? If you invite external speakers (particularly for careers/HE provision) can you highlight people from a Black background? How can you use school alumni to support you with this - would they return to talk about their industry or experience?  

5. Showcase authentic ‘real-life’ higher education experiences  
Young people tell us they learn effectively from others who have gone through similar experiences to them. Not all experiences are negative! Here at the University of York, we have a growing population of Black students joining us. Although many students openly say they believed the North was “full of white people,” upon joining the University, they have found their community and feel welcomed and included both by the University and the City.  

Access programmes

Perhaps one of the best opportunities for Black students to experience life at highly selective universities is through access programmes or events. Often, these permit students to go on a campus visit, funded by the university, and in some cases, to even stay in university accommodation and attend academic taster sessions, or participate in student societies, to get a real sense of student life.  

One example of this would be the new Black Access programme at the University of York. This programme has been designed by current university students, with the support of the Access and Outreach team. Its purpose is to expose students to university life, in an honest and open manner, and has been created “for Black students, by Black students.” Black students in their first year of further education (eg. Year 12 or Level 3: Year 1) who are attending a state school, sixth form or college are eligible to apply. Throughout their time on the programme, they have the opportunity to attend events online and on-campus led by our current students. You can find out more about our programme on our Black Access website or by emailing

Take home messages...

> Black students are currently less likely to progress to the top third of most selective universities compared to their white peers  
> Despite this, it is important to educate Black students about the opportunities available to them at these universities, such as those in the Russell Group  
> There are many ways we can support and acknowledge the barriers faced by Black students, and we should ensure we approach this in a safe and inclusive way  
> Many selective universities offer access programmes to support students to learn about their institution, or higher education more generally  

You may wish to read more about how Russell Group universities are supporting students.  


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