Why are black students less likely to get first class degrees?

Differences in type of university, degree choice, prior attainment and institutional racism are all possible explanations.

In 2020/21 85.9% of white students were awarded a first or 2:1 degree compared to only 67.4% of black students.

This means there is an 18.5% attainment gap between black and white students at university level.

There is also a smaller attainment gap between all BAME students and white students, of 8.9%, but the most significant gap is between white and black students.

Why are black students less likely to get firsts?

Possible explanations include:

  1. They are less likely to attend Russel Group universities
  2. They are less likely to subjects with higher rates of first class degree awarded
  3. They have lower prior A-level attainment
  4. Institutional Racism.

Russel Group Universities and Ethnicity

It could be that black students are less likely to go to Russel Group universities which get better results, but this is not the case: equal numbers of black and white students attend Russel Group Universities.

Does subject choice make a difference?

There is a significant difference in class of degree awarded by subject and it might be the case that black students are less likely to study subjects which have a high rate of first class degrees awarded.

Below are the degree subjects which are most likely to be awarded a first: Almost 43% of medicine and dentistry degrees get a first compared to only 17% of law degrees, which is a huge difference (3).

If black students are more likely to do subjects like law and less likely to do subjects like medicine this could explain why they are also less likely to get first class degrees.

However, while it is true that black students are more likely to do Law than veterinary sciences, according to Universities UK (4) the differences in attainment by ethnicity within these subjects.

A level grades

It could be that black students go into university with lower A-level results which are correlated with lower level degree results.

However, black students underachieve compared to white students no matter what prior attainment they have as the chart (5) below shows.

Could it be institutional racism?

This is the explanation favoured by Universities UK (4) who use the term ‘ degree awarding gap’ rather than ‘degree attainment gap’ in their reports to reflect the fact that the gap is caused by institutional racism or inaction, rather than individual BAME students.

They conducted research in 2019, followed up in 2022 using a range of quantitative analysis and more qualitative interviews to research the experiences of BAME students.

The main piece of quantitative evidence to back up the theory that universities are institutionally racist is the underrepresentation of black staff members, with only 2.5% of university staff being black.

In a recent Guardian article (2) one graduate claims that black students are not listened to by universities, saying that she was warned that she would find it difficult if she did a PhD as a black female students because of racism, effectively being put off from pursing this career path.

More broadly the article suggests that black students do not feel at home in university and so are less likely to strive for higher level degrees.


This material is primarily relevant to the education module within A-level sociology.

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(1) UK Parliament, House of Commons Library (January 2023) Equality of Access and Outcomes in Higher Education in England

(2) The Guardian (May 2019) As a black student I know why our grades are worse.

(3) It’s Official: The Degree Subjects Most Likely to get you a First.

(4) Universities UK (2022) Closing the Gap: Three Years On.

(5) The original report (2019) from Universities UK on closing the gap.