Minority ethnic economists under-represented at top UK universities

An increasing number of academic economists in UK universities come from non-white backgrounds but ethnic minorities remain under-represented in the most prestigious institutions, new research has shown.

A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that of the economists doing research at universities, 24% were from ethnic minorities in 2018 – an increase of five percentage points since 2012.

The thinktank said individuals of Chinese and Indian ethnicity were over-represented while those of black were under-represented, especially in the Russell Group, a self-selecting association of 24 institutions including Oxford and Cambridge.

Ross Warwick, an IFS research economist, said: “Ethnic diversity among economists matters particularly because economists often play an important role in the formulation of policy. Overall academic economists in the UK are relatively ethnically diverse compared to other fields and the population as a whole.

“However, some groups remain under-represented, such as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and black Caribbeans, reflecting a broader pattern across the academic sector.”

The IFS research, co-funded by the Royal Economic Society and the Economic and Social Research Council, found clear differences in the type of roles held by ethnic minority staff compared to white staff. Black economists were 64% less likely to work in Russell Group universities than white ones, while ethnic minority economists were less likely to hold senior academic or managerial positions.

The IFS added that among undergraduates, economics was a relatively popular subject, with non-white students making up 37% of those taking courses at UK universities in 2018. The study showed it was among white students – and white women in particular – that the take-up of economics was lowest.

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The IFS said there were persistent and growing attainment gaps for economics students from minority ethnic backgrounds compared with white students. African-Caribbean students were 24 percentage points less likely to get a first-class degree in 2018, and the gaps could not be explained by characteristics like institution attended or prior attainment.

Bangladeshi undergraduates were half as likely as white students to study economics in Russell Group universities, while black African-Caribbeans were more than 60% less likely.

Arun Advani, assistant professor at the University of Warwick and co-chair of Discover Economics, a campaign to increase diversity in economics, said: “Our research shows that ethnic minority students are more likely than white students to study economics at the undergraduate level. However, they are less likely to study at Russell Group universities, to get top degrees, or to go on to further study. Further research is required to better understand the causes of these differences.”

Many economics students apply for jobs with the Government Economic Service, which provided data for the study. This showed 22% of white applicants who passed the initial assessment through the fast stream were successful, against 8% for non-white applicants. The IFS said this suggested another important obstacle after university.


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