Case study

How are ethnic inequalities in education changing?

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Author: Kitty Lymperopoulou, University of Manchester, in collaboration with colleague Meenakshi Parameshwaran

Date: 16 June 2014

Type of case study: Research

About the research

Education has long been associated with richer employment opportunities and higher salaries. Education patterns in the past indicate ethnic minority groups have been disadvantaged in this respect compared with their white British counterparts, however the trend is changing: more recent studies find that ethnic minorities are obtaining qualifications at increasing rates.

This study aims to provide an overview of the educational attainment of ethnic groups in England and Wales in 2011 and to examine how it has changed over time. Drawing from UK Census data of 1991, 2001 and 2011, the researchers examined the qualifications of ethnic minority groups by age, country of birth and year of arrival. The analysis shows that ethnic minorities earned more qualifications over the last two decades and had higher educational attainment in 2011 than members of the white British group.

Across all age groups in 2011, people born outside the UK and members of the Indian, Chinese and black African groups had significantly higher educational achievements than white British groups.Over 35 per cent of people born outside the UK had degree-level qualifications compared with 26 per cent of those born in the UK.

Over time the censuses indicate improved access to higher education. Overall, people from the Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and black Caribbean groups experienced the largest increases in degree-level qualifications The researchers suggest that these improvements are mainly down to improved access to higher education, particularly among women. Increasing attainment levels and aspirations among ethnic minority pupils -- along with the growing number of international students and high-skilled migrants over the past two decades -- have also played a role. 

The most educationally disadvantaged groups in 2011 were white Gypsies/Irish Travellers, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis; they were more likely to have no qualifications than white British people. However younger people, including members of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups, were considerably more qualified than their older counterparts.

About the data

This research draws on UK Census data from 1991 Local Base Statistics, 2001 Standard Tables, and 2011 Detailed Characteristics and Commissioned Tables.

The 1991 Census Local Base Statistics (LBS) have around 20,000 statistical counts (cells) contained in 99 tables and cover the complete range of topics in the 1991 Census.  The LBS are available down to the ward level in England and Wales and postcode sector level in Scotland.

The 2001 Census contains aggregate statistics produced as outputs from UK censuses to provide summary information on a wide range of demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the population of the United Kingdom. Aggregate statistics are available for the full range of geographies from the smallest (output areas with an average of 150 persons in England and Wales), to national level.

For this study, the researchers used the standard table dataset which provided the most detailed of the aggregates statistics tables.  

Detailed Characteristics (DC) and Commissioned, or ad hoc, tables are generated from the Census 2011. The DC tables contain two or more variables, such as gender and ethnicity. Ad hoc tables are created by request and usually contain combinations of data not readily available.


The researchers used descriptive analysis to examine which ethnic groups are more and less advantaged in terms of educational attainment. The analysis focuses on the distribution of high education outcomes denoted by completed education at Level 4 or above and low education outcomes denoted by the absence of qualifications.

To compare changes, the qualifications of ethnic minority groups were examined by age, country of birth and year of arrival, to explore potential explanations for differences in educational attainment among ethnic groups.

Publications and outputs

Lymperopoulou, K. and Parameshwaran, M. (2014) ‘How are ethnic inequalities in education changing?’ ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity and Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Dynamics of Diversity: Evidence from the 2011 Census series. Retrieved 16 June 2014 from

The briefings have been used by local government, central government and NGOs.

The study has also received coverage in the media:

Bennett, R. (11 March 2014) ‘Many immigrants “are better qualified than white Britons”’, The Times. Retrieved 16 June 2014 from

Patton, G. (10 March 2014) ‘White British adults “less qualified' than ethnic minorities”’, Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 16 June 2014 from

Doughty, S. (11 March 2014) ‘Foreigners in UK more likely to have a degree’, Daily Mail. Retrieved 16 June 2014 from

Dale, I. (Presenter) (10 March 2014) The Whole Show [Radio broadcast], London: LBC Radio. Retrieved 3 June 2014 from

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