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Degree attainment gaps

The degree attainment gap is the difference in ‘top degrees’ – a First or 2:1 classification – awarded to different groups of students. The biggest differences are found by ethnic background.


While overall proportions receiving a First or 2:1 have increased over the past decade, there continues to be a considerable gap between the proportion of white British students receiving these degree classifications compared to UK-domiciled students from minority ethnic groups.

In 2015/16, the gap was largest in England, where 78.8% of white qualifiers received a first/2:1 compared with 63.2% of BME qualifiers – a 15.6 percentage point gap. In contrast, the BME attainment gaps in Scotland and Wales were 8.6 and 8.5 percentage points, respectively.

However, outcomes vary considerably by ethnic group, with particularly wide gaps observed between white and black students in relation to degree attainment. In 2015/16, data shows that:

  • 72.2% of Chinese students were awarded a top degree (a degree attainment gap of 6.6 percentage points)
  • 70.7% of Indian students (a gap of 8.1 percentage points)
  • 61.8% of Pakistani students (a gap of 17.0 percentage points)
  • 50.5% of Black Other students (a gap of 28.3 percentage points)

Notably, the BME degree attainment gap is narrower for those studying science, engineering and technology (SET) subjects than those studying non-SET subjects. It is possible that part of this might be explained by differences in assessment types.

Causes and Remedies

There is a lot of interest and research in this area and various different views on how to tackle the attainment gap. Issues and solutions will vary depending on the culture of each institution, but generally:

  • The degree attainment gap has persisted for at least the last decade, and it will require a variety of different initiatives and approaches to address entrenched racial inequalities
  • Any initiatives or actions are likely to take time to have any significant impact. In implanting actions, institutions will need to be patient and commit to long-term resourcing
  • Students must be at the centre of any actions that are taken. Students should be partners in addressing the gap and involved in the discussions from the beginning.

Action needs to focus on institutional barriers and inequalities, rather than ‘improving’ or ‘fixing’ the student. Traditionally the language of the attainment gap has focused on students’ underachievement or lack of attainment, whereas it should focus on the institutional culture, curriculum and pedagogy.

Related Publications

Equality in HE: statistical report 2017

Our tenth annual statistical report presents high-level equality data to highlight national issues and support institutional benchmarking.

Ethnicity, gender and degree attainment: final report

Summarising the findings of research into the impact of ethnicity and gender on degree attainment.

Improving the degree attainment of black and minority ethnic students

A joint Higher Education Academy and ECU commentary on supporting BME students to achieve better degrees.