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Jon Beard, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment
Friday, 24 May, 2013

In December 2010 I wrote a short piece, Representation of Ethnic Minorities at the University of Cambridge, considering the relative admission of students by ethnicity to the University of Cambridge, and I identified three key issues affecting levels of intake: location, prior attainment, and subject choice. The data underpinning that piece related to admissions in the three years from 2007-09, and since that time the University of Cambridge typical offer has increased to A*AA. This follow-up article is therefore intended to provide a more current reflection. It focusses on the two main factors that I identified in my first piece: prior attainment and subject choice.

Prior Attainment

In my original article I pointed to HEFCE and UCAS data which showed significant differences in attainment at GCSE and A-level between ethnic groups. The table below shows the proportion of UK-domiciled applicants with 3 or more A-levels to undergraduate degree courses in the UK in 2010 and 2011 by ethnicity (a) overall, compared to the proportion (b) with A-level grades of at least A*AA:

Ethnic Group UK A-Level degree applicants Applicants securing A*AA+ A*AA+ applicants as a proportion of ethnic group A*AA+ applicants as a proportion of the UK total
Asian 48631 5471 11.3% 10.7%
Black 15695 >633 4.0% 1.2%
Mixed 15853 >1952 12.3% 3.8%
Other 4241 422 10.0% 0.8%
Unknown 3240 >616 19.0% 1.2%
White 377173 42190 11.2% 82.3%
Total 464833 51284 11.0% 100.0%

(Based on data provided by UCAS)

As can be seen, prior attainment has a profound impact on the number of Black students who are qualified for entry to highly selective universities; in fact there were only c315 Black students per year securing A*AA, of whom just c50 were Black Caribbean. This attainment gap may also be observed at GCSE stage and is the result of numerous and complex factors (see Understanding Black Academic Attainment by C Wright for one view).

A comparison of the proportion of students securing A*AA or better at A-level nationally with the proportion on admissions to Cambridge shows that entrants to the University are almost exactly in line with what might be expected. 

Ethnic Group A*AA+ applicants as a proportion of the UK total A*AA+ applicants as a proportion of those admitted to Cambridge Variance
Asian 10.7% 10.0% -0.7%
Black 1.2% 0.9% -0.3%
Mixed 3.8% 4.8% +1.0%
Other >0.8% 0.7% -0.1%
Unknown 1.2% 1.7% +0.5%
White 82.3% 81.8% -0.5%
Total 100.0% 100.0%  

(Based on data provided by UCAS)


That is of course only part of the story in terms of Cambridge admissions. Whilst A*AA is the typical offer currently made by the University, in fact 78% of UK-domiciled A-level acceptances hold grades of A*A*A or better. And our admissions process is not based on A-level grades alone: in terms of formal examination we also take into account STEP and BMAT scores (for Mathematics and Medicine respectively); through application forms and during interview we assess a student's motivation to study and ability to think around their chosen subject. For this reason over 3600 UK-domiciled A Level applicants a year who go on to secure grades of A*AA or better are not made an offer by the University.

Subject Choice

The Russell Group has expressed concerns that many students are not studying the right combinations of subjects to qualify them for entry to selective institutions. Whilst this is a factor, in terms of ethnicity the bigger issue is choice of subject to be studied at University. Applicants have a propensity to make university subject choices depending on their ethnicity.

The table below shows the Top 10 subjects applied for by each ethnic group by proportion of all UK-domiciled undergraduate degree applications from students who went on to secure A*AA at A-level.

L1 Economics 9.7%
G1 Maths 8.6%
A2 Dentistry 5.5%
M1 Law 5.4%
F3 Physics 2.5%
B9 Allied to Med 2.5%
B2 Pharmacy 2.4%
Z Combinations 1.8%
H3 Mech Eng 1.8%
A1 Medicine 22.4%
M1 Law 13.6%
L1 Economics 6.7%
G1 Maths 4.5%
Q3 English 4.0%
H8 Chem Eng 3.8%
B9 Allied to Med 2.4%
Y Combinations 2.2%
H3 Mech Eng 2.1%
LL Social Studies 2.1%
A1 Medicine 11.0%
G1 Maths 6.7%
Q3 English 6.5%
L1 Economics 5.2%
V1 History 4.9%
M1 Law 4.6%
F3 Physics 4.0%
Z Combinations 3.5%
C8 Psychology 3.4%
Y Combinations 2.6%
A1 Medicine 9.1%
Q3 English 7.1%
G1 Maths 6.8%
V1 History 6.2%
M1 Law 4.8%
F3 Physics 4.3%
L1 Economics 3.2%
C8 Psychology 3.1%
Z Combinations 2.8%
F1 Chemistry 2.5%

Asian and Black students are skewed by volume towards fewer academic disciplines when compared with Mixed and White applicants It is notable that:

  1. These include subjects not offered by Cambridge (Dentistry, Pharmacy, and Subjects Allied to Medicine), and so some students have effectively deselected themselves for a place at the University
  2. Asian and Black students are around 2.5 times more likely to apply to Medicine - one of the UK's most competitive subjects - than White students, with clear implications for overall success rates by ethnic group

Sustained Commitment

The above, I hope, demonstrates the significant effect that prior attainment and subject choice has on entry to selective universities and to the University of Cambridge in particular. Recent analyses of Cambridge admissions data by third parties have failed to take either sufficiently into account, and so draw conclusions based on correlations rather than causal links.

We continue to do significant work to encourage the brightest students from under-represented ethnicities to apply to the University; our BAME initiatives are now in fact in their 24th year. They include an intensive 3 year programme (which includes university visits, challenge days and residential summer schools) for 180 students in Years 10, 11 and 12 which amongst other things seeks to assist students with making the best subject choices and preparing them to make applications to selective institutions. At the time of my last report I indicated that admissions from BAME students stood at 15%, and that this was ahead of national population trends. Our admissions data for 2012 entry shows that this figure had increased to 16.4%.

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