Higher education and ethnicity: Exploring patterns and inequalities in ethnic minorities’ attainment in the UK universities and labour market performance

  • Kostas Kollydas

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The overarching aim of this research is twofold. First, I explore the disparities in academic attainment and progression between ethnic minority undergraduates and their White peers in the UK, in terms of the probability of graduating with a “good” class of degree and the dropout likelihood. Second, I estimate the size of ethnic pay inequalities in the British labour market among UK-born graduates and quantify the contribution of specific characteristics to the wage differential.

Regarding the likelihood of degree non-completion, for the first time in the ethnicity context, I distinguish between compulsory dismissal (because of academic failure) and voluntary dropout (because of personal, financial, or other reasons), acknowledging that an effective policy response to student withdrawal ought to be closely associated with the dropout causes. I provide firm evidence that all ethnic minority groups have, on average, a higher probability of failing their degrees than White students, even after allowing for differences in a wide range of socio-demographic and university characteristics. Most worryingly, Black African students are twice as likely (7.1%) as their White peers (3.8%) to fail. On the contrary, White students are more inclined towards quitting voluntarily than ethnic minorities, although the differences are smaller than those relating to academic dismissal. The probability of attaining a good degree class stands at 76.2% for White students, and the difference relative to ethnic minorities ranges from 4.3 percentage points (for students from a Mixed ethnic background) to 15.1 percentage points (for Black African students). These performance gaps remain striking across all types of institutions and social class levels, suggesting that ethnic minorities’ under-attainment is a pervasive issue.

With respect to the second target of this thesis, a key conclusion of this work is that having graduated from university does not eliminate ethnic pay inequalities. For Black men, the labour market experience is more disappointing, as their wage penalties stand at higher levels (16.7%) than those of Black women (4.5%) and the other ethnic groups. The occupational segregation and the shorter job tenure of ethnic minorities relative to White people make up the primary determinants of pay gaps relating to observed characteristics. Although it is difficult to disentangle the extent of racial discrimination from other unobserved factors that also shape the wage levels, by implementing a novel method that partially addresses the selection on unobservable determinants of earnings, I find supportive evidence of ethnic discrimination, particularly against Black and Asian men. I reveal that ethnic penalties worsen with age across both genders, implying that some mechanisms endogenous to the labour market (such as discrepancies in promotion procedures, access to company-specific training, and the time required to find a job, which, in turn, affects the accumulative experience) should, at least partially, explain these results.

These research findings should help policymakers better comprehend the mechanisms that produce diverse academic and earnings outcomes and identify targeted strategies for each ethnic group. In this context, I propose certain policymaking actions that should alleviate the barriers faced by ethnic minorities in higher education and the UK labour market.
Date of Award8 Sept 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJoanna Clifton-Sprigg (Supervisor) & Kerry Papps (Supervisor)


  • UK higher education
  • ethnic minorities
  • university dropout
  • academic performance
  • UK labour market
  • wage gaps
  • discrimination

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