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Cambridge Admissions Office

Jon Beard, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment
Thursday, 2 December, 2010

Q. What percentage of students admitted to the University of Cambridge are from UK ethnic minority backgrounds?

A. For 2009 entry 15.0% of students admitted to full-time undergraduate courses at the University of Cambridge were from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds. According to estimates produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 11.3% of the population of England and Wales in mid-2007 were from BAME backgrounds. The Race Into Higher Education report in 2010 put the figure at 14.2% for England, Scotland and Wales for the age group 18-24.

Q. Why are there conflicting figures about the percentage of BAME students?

A. Data can be used in many ways to produce quite different outcomes. The Race Into Higher Education report used data secured from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). It claimed that 10.5% of Cambridge students were from BAME backgrounds – well below the true figure. The analysis assumed that any student who did not declare ethnicity was, by default, white. It also included part-time students, who tend to study closer to home (see below) and those enrolling on day, weekend, or term length programmes which may not lead to a qualification at all.

Q. What issues affect the representation of ethnic groups in Cambridge?

A. Three key issues affect representation across the HE sector: location, prior educational attainment and course choice.

  1. Location : HESA data shows that students from ethnic minorities tend to either remain in or gravitate towards a small number of urban centres for their higher education (primarily London, the Home Counties, Birmingham and Bradford). According to data produced by the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), on average BAME applicants do not attend a university which is more than 34.8 miles from home compared with 54.9 miles for all applicants. Institutions further away from these urban centres will attract fewer BAME students and find it harder to increase numbers.
  2. Prior Educational Attainment : In May 2010 the Higher Education Funding Council for England published figures showing attainment at A Level by ethnicity. These showed that 33.0% of Asian students, 28.0% of White students, 11.3% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi students and 8.8% of Black students secured 360 UCAS tariff points or better. To put this into context, UCAS data shows that White students account for 82.2% of degree applicants who secure AAA at A Level. This compares with 10.6% for Asian students and 1.2% for Black students. In other words, the more competitive the university, the more uneven the field in terms of eligible applicants by minority ethnic group.
  3. Course Choice : UCAS data also shows that Black and Asian students tend to apply to more competitive subjects, such as Medicine, which results in a disproportionately high rate of rejection and therefore lower participation rates.

 Q. What steps is Cambridge taking to increase representation ?

A. The University of Cambridge has a long tradition of engaging with BAME students. Our Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications (GEEMA) project was set up in 1989 to increase representation. During this time, GEEMA has helped raise the proportion of BAME students registered on our undergraduate degree programmes from 5.5% to 15.0% – ahead of national demographics.

In 2009-10, GEEMA visited over 600 BAME students and teachers in their schools and colleges, and organised visits for a further 600 to the University. Eighty Year 10 and 11 BAME students also spent a week living at the University as part of our summer schools programme. Along side the work of GEEMA are a number of College-led initiatives which aim to engage with BAME students.

The issues involved in raising the aspirations and achievement of BAME students in HE are complex. We recognise that there is more to be done, particularly for specific minority ethnic groups, and welcome research which leads to better understanding of those issues.

For more about our work with ethnic minorities, see:

Jon Beard, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment

Editor's Notes:

Statistics on attainment at GCSE, degree applications to all UK universities and applications to the University of Cambridge by ethnicity

  • Overall there is virtually no difference in attainment at GCSE between BAME and White students. There is however a clear attainment gap between individual BAME ethnic groups, with Indian and Chinese students outperforming other groups. Pupils of Black Caribbean heritage are the least likely to secure good GCSE grades.
  • Although BAME students represent 19.7% of all degree applicants where ethnicity is known, they represent just 15.8% of those who go on to secure AAA at A Level. Once again there are sharp variations by ethnic group.
  • The success rate of BAME students applying to the University of Cambridge is significantly lower than for White students. However, BAME applicants are less likely to secure the general entrance requirement which was then AAA at A Level. BAME students are more likely to apply for the most competitive subjects. For example, over one quarter of BAME students apply to study either Medicine or Law.
  • There are clear reasons why entry to the University does not mirror the UK population by individual ethnic group. Once account is taken of levels of attainment and patterns of application, the number of students from BAME backgrounds admitted to the University mirrors the national picture. 

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