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Black, Bangladeshi, Pakistani LSE students face 30% gap in first-class awards compared to white, Chinese peers

Black, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani students suffer from deep, persistent attainment gaps, according to six years of grade data obtained and analysed by The Beaver. The findings should raise pressure on LSE to intensify efforts to combat systemic racism at the university.

The gap between Black, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani students and their classmates in attaining the highest class degrees at LSE remains substantial and has not meaningfully reduced in the past six years, according to grade data obtained and analysed by The Beaver. 

The Beaver’s findings, which should increase pressure on LSE to intensify its efforts at countering systemic racism within the university, show that—despite the School’s long-time acknowledgement of an ‘attainment gap’ in its highest degree classifications—gaps remain as substantial as they were in 2014/5, and in some cases have widened. An ‘attainment gap’ refers to the difference between groups in the percentage of first-class (and sometimes 2:1) degrees awarded.

On average over the past six years, 42% of Chinese students and 37% of white students were awarded first-class degrees. Just 15% of their Black peers of African descent attained the same result, joined by just 16% of Bangladeshi students and 21% of Pakistani students. 

LSE’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Strategy, which was implemented in 2017 and stands until 2022, lists reducing attainment gaps for Black and minority ethnic (BME) students among its key performance indicators. Yet the past six years of grade and degree data reviewed by The Beaver show no significant reduction in attainment gaps: the gap in first-class awards between Black students of African descent and Chinese students stood at 32% in the 2019/20 academic year compared to a 30% gap in 2014/15. There were positive improvements in 2015/16 and 2016/17, when the gap reduced to 24% and 21%. However, the gains were short-lived, returning to 30% in the two subsequent years.

Similarly, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students faced 36% and 29% attainment gaps respectively, in 2019/20  compared to Chinese students, who were the ethnic group  awarded the highest proportion of first-class degrees. These gaps appear relatively consistent with the gap six years ago, when Pakistani and Bangladeshi students faced 25% and 32% gaps when compared to Chinese students.

Figure 1: Percentage of students awarded first-class degrees, by ethnicity (2014/15-2019/20)

Data visualisation based on The Beaver’s analysis of data obtained in Freedom of Information request.

The data, obtained by The Beaver in a Freedom of Information request, covers nearly 50,000 ethnicity-disaggregated grade data points, covering all undergraduate programmes as well as first-year results from the 2014/5 to 2019/20 academic years. The data represents the most substantial public profile of LSE’s attainment gap since at least 2016, when the Student’s Union released a report finding a “persistent disadvantage for BME students whether ‘home’ or international, undergraduate or postgraduate” and noted that “BME students are less likely to obtain ‘good degrees’ than white students, and this has been the case for many years.”

LSE has recognized that attainment gaps exist in their mark profiles and degree awards. The university’s  2019-20 Access and Participation Plan, for example, details internal analyses undertaken in 2018 which controlled from curricular differences and prior attainment at A-Levels. Based on that analysis, the School noted that “significant ethnicity-based attainment gaps,” exist at LSE, and the School has funded research designed, in part, to re-shape learning with a view to closing attainment gaps.

Table 1: Percentage of students attaining first-class degrees (2019-20) by ethnicity, and attainment gaps by ethnicity compared to highest-attaining group

Ethnicity Percentage of students awarded first-class degrees (2019-20) Attainment gap
Chinese 53% N/a
Indian 51% 2%
White 47% 6%
Arab 26% 27%
Bangladeshi 24% 29%
Black – African 21% 32%
Black – Carribean 20% 33%
Pakistani 17% 36%
Data source: Freedom of Information request

For clarity, the data provided by LSE does not distinguish between ethnicity and nationality; thus, ‘Bangladeshi’, for example, encompasses British students of Bangladeshi descent as well as Bangladeshi nationals. As noted in a 2016 report by the Student’s Union, however, gaps remain persistent regardless of whether students of a given ethnic group are ‘home’ or international students.

The investigation’s findings match phenomena observed nationally by Advance HE, a national higher education organisation formerly known as the Equality Challenge Unit. In England, 79% of white students attained first-class or upper-second-class degrees in 2015/6. In the same year, 72% of Chinese students, 71% of Indian students, 62% of Pakistani students, and 51% of Black students achieved the same result.

The Beaver conducted a regression analysis on the data, which measures the likelihood that students of certain ethnicities will achieve a first-class degree, relative to their peers with different backgrounds.

The Beaver found that Black students were nearly 20% less likely to achieve a first-class degree than non-Black students, after controlling for other factors. Bangladeshi students were 18% less likely to achieve the top degree compared to their non-Bangladeshi peers, while Pakistani students were 11% less likely to do the same compared to non-Pakistani students. Chinese students were 12% more likely to achieve the top degree compared to non-Chinese students; the regression for white students did not yield statistically significant results.

Figure 2: Change in probability of attaining first-class degree relative to person of another ethnicity, by ethnicity

Data visualisation based on The Beaver’s analysis of data obtained in Freedom of Information request.

In a 2016 report on LSE’s attainment gap, both LSE and the Students’ Union used Advance HE’s calculation of the attainment gap, which measures the difference between ethnic groups in the proportion of first-class and 2:1 degrees granted. Both groups also accepted that the same measure could be applied to proportions of students gaining first-class awards alone. Given the high number of ‘good awards’, or first-class and 2:1, granted by LSE—nearly 94% of final-year students achieved at least a 2:1 degree last year—The Beaver has opted to use the difference in first-class awards to measure attainment gaps among LSE graduates.

In filings required by the Office for Students (OfS), LSE has stated its aim to eliminate the attainment gap between white and Black students, and between white and Asian students, by 2028. The filings, as The Beaver understands, are the first filings in which commitments can be binding; they set yearly targets which aim to reduce the gap by about half by 2025. However, the figures reviewed by The Beaver appear to concern only the gap in ‘good awards’, which is substantially smaller than the gap in first-class degrees.

Dr Sara Camacho-Felix, an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at the International Inequalities Institute who has undertaken significant research on internal attainment gaps on behalf of LSE, told The Beaver that these issues are particularly stark when they intersect with gender, and that Black and Bangladeshi women face particularly stark attainment gaps.

Separately, last year the OfS named LSE in a list of universities which have the widest gap between rich and poor students. The Department for Education (DfE) and higher education experts have recently renewed warnings of growing attainment gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers, which intersect with racial and gender attainment gaps to particularly disadvantage students from working class or deprived backgrounds. Similarly, the OfS has warned that students with mental health difficulties face stark attainment gaps and higher drop-out rates.

LSE has struggled to improve Black academic representation

Respondents to a national 2011 National Union of Students (NUS) survey on the Black attainment gap listed a lack of representation of Black staff as a major issue which affected students’ ability to engage fully with their programmes. At LSE in 2019, 63% of staff members were white, compared to 53% of students. BME, and particularly Black, staff are disproportionately engaged in low-paying non-academic work at LSE, and just 1.4% of Fellows and 1.1% of teaching staff were classified as Black in a 2018 EDI filing. That was the last year that LSE specifically enumerated the percentage of Black staff in public documents; in subsequent years, the School has classified all non-white staff under the broader “BME” category. Such a move makes it more difficult for the public to track LSE’s progress in improving representation of particularly underrepresented BME communities.

LSE’s difficulties in attracting Black staff seem varied, and deeply systemic within the broader world of higher education. Dr Sara Camaco-Felix, who authored LSE’s Inclusive Education Action Plan, told The Beaver that attainment issues are closely related to academic pipeline issues: students who are disadvantaged in their undergraduate studies are less likely to continue in academia, contributing to a particular ethnic make-up of academic hiring pools which is highly unrepresentative of the general or student population.

Elsewhere, LSE has faced criticism for its problems with both retention and timely promotion of high-caliber Black academics. In the 2018 EDI report, LSE disclosed that it had zero Black Assistant Professors and that just 0.48% of Associate Professors were Black. This summer, the Department of Social Policy appointed LSE’s only Black Professor, Professor Coretta Phillips. At any given time since 2011, LSE has only had one fully-ranked Black Professor, and academics who spoke to The Beaver largely expressed the view that the low number of Black Professors was not due to a lack of qualified candidates, but rather due to a systemic failure to promote Black and BME professors along the same lines as white colleagues. Indeed, LSE noted in a 2016 report that non-white staff earned 11.4% less than their white counterparts after controlling for all other relevant factors.

LSE’s Race in the Academy report noted that many BME academics felt that they had been passed over for promotions even when they met promotion criteria. The report, authored by Dr Akile Ahmet and Dr Caroline Howarth, concluded that “it is not surprising that many high profile black and ethnic minority staff have left the LSE after a relatively short time.” 

Internally, LSE has acknowledged systemic racism at the university before. The 2016 Race in the Academy report, for example, was commissioned and funded by the School to investigate, according to the School, “why so few black and ethnic minority academics are attracted to the LSE and why it struggles to retain black and ethnic minority academic staff.” The report made several recommendations, including diversifying interview promotion panels and immediately reviewing the career histories of all BME academics with a “view to promote where possible or give support where necessary.” However, academics with knowledge of the issue expressed the view that, beyond initial recognition of the report, little had changed internally and institutional priorities quickly shifted elsewhere.

There are other issues which contribute to such a stark attainment gap. In interviews and focus groups conducted as part of Dr Camacho-Felix’s research, it became clear that reading lists were an area of major concern, particularly in ostensibly ‘international’ courses and degrees. In many cases, authors cited in reading lists are overwhelmingly white and represent largely ‘white’ and Global Northern perspectives, which can be alienating for students who struggle to find their lived experiences reflected in their academic work. Other students raised issues with academic ‘canons’ and questions about which academic works and topics were considered open to critique in assessments, particularly around issues of racism.

LSE expected to take further action to tackle systemic racism

The Beaver understands from sources within the School that LSE will soon make a “significant announcement related to race equity,” which will likely be the long-anticipated Race Equity Framework. The framework is expected to build on LSE’s Inclusive Education Action Plan (IEAP), developed by Dr Camacho-Felix. 

The plan, which The Beaver understands has strong Directorate interest, issues recommendations which are designed to move away from the “deficit model, which seeks to ‘fix’ students to match the existing university culture” and instead to “change Education practice across the School, which will ensure that diverse students, regardless of ethnicity or disability, have the opportunity to continue and attain good degrees without unnecessary barriers,” according to the report.

In a comment, an LSE spokesperson said “We are committed to working with the LSE community to create and sustain change and tackle racial inequity in all its forms.

“Earlier this year, we identified key priorities for race equity and, using feedback from across the School, have developed a LSE Race Equity Framework focusing on action across three strands – education, research and people.

“This will include tangible actions for this year, as well as longer term initiatives we know are essential for systemic change. It will cover a number of areas, including making sure our education reflects the diverse world around us and improving access and progression to ensure ethnic diversity among future social scientists.

“The Framework will be rolled out in the coming weeks, with further opportunities for students and staff to take part in the conversation.”

It was not immediately clear how closely the Race Equity Framework will follow the IEAP’s suggestions, which include academic mentoring, de-biasing, inclusive practice, curricular decolonisation, and improving the embedding of study skills. It is also not clear how LSE will seek to standardise these lessons across academic departments, which hold substantial autonomy and vary widely in their current policies towards equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Questions have been raised about LSE’s commitment to tackling racism given their ongoing hiring of Satoshi Kanazawa, a Reader in the Department of Management who has raised controversy in the past over comments suggesting that Black women are “far less attractive” than women of other races, as well as work which attempted to link intelligence and beauty to race. Responding to the controversy in 2011, LSE said in a statement “The views expressed by this academic are his own and do not in any way represent those of [the school] as an institution. The important principle of academic freedom means that authors have the right to publish their views – but it also means the freedom to disagree.”

At the time, LSE conducted an internal investigation and forbade Kanazawa from publishing in non-peer reviewed outlets for a year, but allowed him to remain on the School’s faculty. 

Similarly, LSE faced criticism in 2018 after the university accepted Peter Cvjetanovic to study a Master’s degree in the Department of Government. Cvjetanovic had become the face of the white supremacist and Neo-Nazi ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and previously described himself as a ‘white nationalist’. LSE defended its decision to admit Cvjetanovic in a statement which stressed the School’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion but asserted that “Students and staff are free to hold and express their own views.” 

Yasmina O’Sullivan contributed to reporting, especially on data analysis.

Editor’s note: The Beaver has decided to use the ethnic categories provided by LSE to preserve the integrity of the data and its conclusions. This does not imply endorsement of the categorisation and/or terminology used by LSE.