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WEEKEND READING – UCAS on Black History Month and Undergraduate Applications: the unities and differences in 2020

  • 31 October 2020
  • By Sarah Barr Miller

This blog was written by Sarah Barr Miller, Head of Insight and Consultancy, UCAS Media. Sarah’s team helps providers make informed data-led decisions through the provision of data products and services. She delivers UCAS’ data consultancy offer, providing actionable insight for universities and colleges.

Black History Month 2020 is a time for people to come together and hopefully learn lessons for the present and the future.

Catherine Ross, Founder of the National Caribbean Heritage Museum

Among many other things, it is our job to understand the motivations and behaviours of 700,000 students each year. It helps us to identify changes, predict what’s coming next and take a temperature check on what’s really driving the decisions of young people.

Throughout Black History Month, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter social movement, we have taken a closer look than ever before. We wanted to discover the hidden insights which would help us and the sector understand the unique experiences of Black students and applicants. With this information, we can all do more to support them.

The Differences

We all know that ignoring cultural distinctions is a one-way ticket to leaving millions of students feeling disengaged. This is why we, as a sector, dedicate so much time and energy to personalising international recruitment.

We also know from our previous research that:

  • students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (of which ethnicity is just one equality variable in the UCAS Multiple Equality Measure) are 4.4 times less likely to enter higher education than the least disadvantaged; and
  • the more disadvantaged a student, the closer to home they tend to stay. Even once they get there, black students achieve half the number of first class degrees as white students, an awarding gap unlikely to close until 2086, based on current progress.

We need to know why their experiences are so different and what we can do to help.

The base of this article was three different survey data sets spanning decision making through 2019 and 2020. In all of these students identified their ethnicities and then went on to discuss their motivations, priorities and decision-making. Through analysis of how different groups responded and by analysing the copious amount of free text we collect we found some enlightening new insight. 

Whilst it can be difficult to infer meaning from groups as broad as ‘Black’ and ‘White’, these are the differences we found:

Money matters

Overall, Black students are far more worried about their bank balances than their white peers. It is reflective of the disproportionate poverty levels of BAME households in the UK and it influences the everyday lives of young Black students at a time which should be hopeful and exciting.

During university, Black students are more likely to be:

  • travelling home to work a part-time job;
  • attributing money worries to poor mental health;
  • wanting more support from their university with financial struggles;
  • concerned about tuition fees (twice as much as white students are); and
  • were more likely to cite graduate earning potential as a core reason for choosing their eventual university than their white peers.

Family and home

Perhaps related to a less firm financial footing, black students are also far more likely to depend on, and be depended upon, by their families. They will, generally:

  • spend more of their free time caring for family;
  • choose universities closer to their family home;
  • choose university because it is expected of them by family; and
  • to cite family members in their rationale for choosing their university indicating the importance placed on siblings, children and parents.

Diversity drivers

The epicentre of Black Lives Matter has undoubtedly been in the younger generation. This stands out in our data, where the movement has had a disproportionately large impact on the answers of black students, who are more likely (than white students, and than ever before) to:

  • Cite diversity and values as a core concern about going to university; and
  • Seek out a ‘warm welcome’ or ‘supportive environment’ from their university.

These differences mean that those emotive marketing messages of ‘fleeing the nest’ and ‘gaining independence’ may need rethinking, at least for a proportion of students who are concerned about such seismic changes in their lives. For many Black students, the concept of managing their own money while living away from their family is not a positive selling point.

The Similarities

But still, it would be a brave institution which launches different campaigns targeting different cultures, based on these differences. That is not the reason we are highlighting them, but if we are indeed united by our similarities rather than our differences, then the following points will provide food for thought in approaches to equality and diversity.

Coronavirus matters least

COVID, which has prevented a ‘normal’ start to university and drove dramatic changes to exams and results, did not even make the top ten of words used when applicants described their feeling about choosing a university. In fact, it was mentioned in fewer than 2 per cent of responses for either Black or white students. That includes mentions of the virus and of lockdown.

The pandemic simply does not contend with the greater and more permanent considerations of university such as:

The course itself: Some things are stalwart. 9 out of 10 students, both Black and white, were ultimately driven by the range of modules when making their final decisions. It might not have been top of the pile for selecting their initial options, but when it came to replying to offers and committing their futures, all eyes returned to the core reason of going in the first place: the course.

It is interesting to note the importance placed on modules specifically. This was not commenting on a course’s performance in league tables, its employability outcomes, or its style of delivery, but its modules. Whether they help students to imagine themselves in those classes, or they paint the picture of a rounded syllabus, they represent a key marketing message for students of all backgrounds.

‘Feel’ is the chief driver

And now one to invite some head-scratching: it is the ‘feel’ of a university which has been driving decisions most in the 2020 cycle. Whether that’s the culture, environment, atmosphere, or something else entirely; ‘feel’ has risen to the top of the rankings when compared to 2019 for both black (from 4th to 1st) and white (from 7th to 1st) students. It was is the most mentioned factor when it comes to what leaves a positive impression. 

Other important factors in terms of the words used were ‘home’, ‘offer’ and ‘open day’ which were consistently high for all applicant groups.

Whilst ‘feel’ might be abstract, we all know the feeling of when something is ‘just right’. Somehow, this is what universities need to synthesise; increasingly difficult without the other key factor of an open day through which to impart your identity. Maybe this is the golden opportunity to mobilise your current students to harness the power of peer-to-peer communication?

The Lessons

Higher education has a duty of care to its customers which goes beyond other sectors. 

We all have a responsibility to act with sensitivity and empathy with regards to applicants’ investment in their future. Part of this is understanding and appreciating the differences between them and supporting them in their needs and wants.

Yes, our research shows that some things are more important to Black students than they are to white students, and vice versa. This does not mean these factors should influence your entire student engagement plan, but neither does it mean they should be ignored.

So, what does it mean?

If we are responsible for engaging with, and caring for, diverse groups, these cultural differences should become as commonplace knowledge as the other realities of equality. Of gender, sexuality, disability, religion and, of course, race. 

Sometimes, we need to dig deeper to discover these differences.

But whilst we have only scratched the surface, even this insight can help us provide inclusive experiences where Black students feel heard and welcomed. Not just on a ‘my door is always open’ basis, but on a basis where we already know that some students might struggle more away from home or be more concerned about money; a basis where we place less emphasis on the ramifications of COVID and more on courses and practical support – and one where we strive to create an environment that ‘just feels right.’


When they complete a survey, we ask applicants to declare to their ethnicity. Due to the volume of replies we receive; we aggregate applicants from all Black backgrounds together to provide robust comparisons to other broad ethnic groups. We know these groups may be too broad though to fully explain the full details of applicants from different groups, and we suppor­t ways of appropriately analysing responses and data in the future to provide better context of all applicants’ experiences.

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