Whilst university can be an overwhelming experience for a lot of students, those from an ethnic minority or disadvantaged backgrounds can be confronted with a unique set of anxieties and experiences.
The disproportionate drop-out rates among this demographic offer a worrying indictment for social mobility. A report released in 2017 exposed the extent of this reality in the UK, with black students identified as 50% more likely to drop out of university than their white or Asian classmates. More than one in ten black students drop out, which amounts to 10.3%.
To ease the transition from school to university, and prevent students from dropping out, universities offer tailored skills support programmes, peer mentoring and counseling. However, research shows that students who are most likely to drop out are also the least likely to draw on these services, making them somewhat ineffective. London has encountered the worst retention rates throughout England, which is in part attributed to a higher intake of black students and students from low participation areas.
Identifying exactly how ethnic inequality impacts drop-out rates is a complex social and structural issue, as a variety of factors can contribute like economic deprivation, the educational attainment of family members and personal life events. Research by QS shows that a sense of insecurity can be present before young black British students have even started university. This is expressed by Precious, in London, who is 17 years old and looking to study Criminology: “I feel like maybe I will be looked down upon just because of my ethnic background and they might think that we’re not as smart as people from white ethnic groups. I just hope it won’t affect my academic achievement.” Precious feels that students from minority backgrounds are likely to have a different experience at university to others as “everyone has their stereotypes.”
Precious provides further context as to why a university might be a more challenging environment for black students, who are confronted with pressures their white counterparts are unlikely to understand or experience themselves. Research shows that universities with a low student satisfaction score in the National Student Survey have higher drop-out rates. The QS UK Domestic Student Survey monitors perceptions of student satisfaction, which can enable universities to develop tailored development strategies.
Students from some ethnic minority backgrounds are also more likely to live at home during their studies, which can prevent them from developing a sense of belonging more typical to a campus environment. There are rising debates about the need for radical change to the way universities function, with the traditional teaching structure of lecture halls hailed as outdated. Research suggests that smaller two-hour seminars improve attendance and performance, particularly among non-campus-based students and those with low grades.
Some universities have begun using data as a tool to provide aid to students who might need it most. Research indicates that, once something goes wrong for international or non-traditional students, the decline can occur much faster than it would for other students. Data gathering is thus proposed as a method to identify the early stages of disengagement. Learning analytics are also being developed to adapt to how individuals respond to online content.
The use of technology to monitor students also raises ethical questions about how and when this data should be used. This suggests that, whilst potentially helpful for improving retention rates among BAME students, its use should be subject to regulations and transparency.
Sections of the QS UK Domestic Student Survey monitors perceptions of student satisfaction. Access the full report for free here.