White teenagers are proportionately the least likely ethnic group to go to Britain’s top universities for the first time on record, according to government data.
White pupils at university by the age of 19 fell behind the proportion of black teenagers for the first time in 2020/21, but both groups trail behind Asian, mixed race and Chinese students.
Data released by the Department for Education (DfE) compares progression rates of state school-educated pupils to top universities, which it defines as the top third of HE providers when ranked by entry requirements.
In 2020/21, 10.5% of white pupils from state school backgrounds were studying at these institutions. This is a slight rise on the 2019/20 figure of 10.2%, and the first time that white students have been the least-represented group.
In January 2021, the Office for Students warned that “male white British free school meals pupils are the least likely of all ethnic groups to progress to higher education”.
Black students in the same age group make up 10.7% of those attending top universities.
Chinese teenagers continue to be the most represented group, attending these institutions at a rate of 40.7%. The respective figures for Asian and mixed-race teenagers are 15.6% and 13.4%.
“A particular vulnerability for white working-class pupils appears to be poor reading levels early in secondary school which stymies their subsequent learning.”
– Professor of Social Mobility at Exeter University, Lee Elliot Major
Speaking to the Telegraph, Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, said: “Disentangling the factors driving this underperformance is difficult, but poverty, instability in the home and where you happen to live are all as important to white working class pupils as any other pupils.”
He said it was important to challenge “the assumption that the white working class is one homogenous cultural group” and it is “far from clear how much in common white pupils on free school meals have in Sunderland, Southwark, Scarborough or Southampton”.
He added: “A particular vulnerability for white working-class pupils appears to be poor reading levels early in secondary school which stymies their subsequent learning. This is a particular challenge for boys.”
A Russell Group statement reads: “Russell Group universities work hard to ensure anyone with the drive and determination to succeed at university can do so, and last year our universities took on 20 per cent more students from the lowest participation areas. We are also determined to support them while they are there, which is reflected in the high levels of continuation rates and future earnings at our universities.”