The Government’s Race Disparity Audit is about to launch a website through which users will be able to see differences in public service provision and outcomes by ethnic group. The problem is by using the term ‘disparity’, it invites the synonym ‘inequality’ with the assumption that discrimination is mainly to blame.

Discrimination does exist but sometimes there are alternative explanations that are not always obvious and not every difference is an inequality.

For instance, I once attended a discussion at a leading think tank on ethnicity and achievement. Someone brought up the fact that white students were more likely to get a first despite the fact they tend to do worse throughout school.

In 2013/14, 22.4 per cent of white students got firsts compared to 13.7 per cent of non-white students. The point was made at the think tank, that whites were even outperforming high-flying Indian and Chinese students who have been outperforming by some stretch all other ethnic groups for some time now at A-level and at GCSEs: 16.8 per cent of Indians and 18.6 per cent of Chinese got firsts.

It was assumed that academics were not living up to their liberal principles and we all got a bit cross with them. As I left the plush offices of the think tank though, I began to wonder if we had been fair on our professors. Had we rushed to judge and condemn them for the offence of unconscious racism (or maybe even conscious?) with the sentence being re-education through diversity training?

Let us first consider what professors are like. They are mostly white although some ethnic minority academics have a better chance of being a professor than others, most notably Chinese ones. They are also heavily on the political left with many passionate about issues of equality.  They are hardly the most likely suspects when it comes to being secret racists.

That is not enough to get them off the hook, so let us dig a little deeper. All exams at undergraduate level are marked anonymously. Remember, anonymous job applications are seen as the gold-standard in fair practice and have been shown to cut down on discrimination.

When it comes to grading, academics will set the boundaries based on the distribution of exam scores – who gets a first, who gets a 2.1, who gets the dreaded Desmond, and who gets a third – and this involves the discussion of individual cases without anonymity. In incidences of borderline cases, there will be discretion involved and potentially academics may discriminate against non-white students, whether knowingly or otherwise. That said, grading is overseen by independent academics from other universities; it does not seem likely that academics are going to discriminate when they are being scrutinised by outsiders.

The charge seems even less credible now. The most important point though is that in statistics, things are not always what they seem. White people in one dataset may not be the same white people in another dataset. Yes, white performance at GCSE level is so-so. However, fewer white people go on to A-levels than for all other ethnic minority groups. In 2014/15, 49 per cent of white British kids went on to study for their A-levels compared to 77 per cent of Indians, 71 per cent of black Africans, and 80 per cent of Chinese. For other minority groups, the share varies between around a half and two thirds.

Performance for whites at A-level is also so-so. Once more fewer white people go from A-level onto university: 56 per cent of white British kids went on to university compared to 78 per cent of Chinese and 75 per cent of Indians – all other non-white minority groups have higher rates of going on to university with black Caribbeans being closest to the white British.

Which people go to university? The intake of any university can be divided up into the following categories: (1) the talented, (2) the committed, (3) the talented and committed, and (4) those who really should not be going at all. In any population, the first three will push their way through the door while the latter will stagger through last. If more people from a certain ethnic group are going on to further and higher education, it seems credible to say they will be taking with them a larger share of those with less ability and have little motivation to be there.

With each cut the white British student population will be becoming leaner and more competitive. Those whites taking their GCSEs are not the same whites who are taking their undergraduate exams. Ethnic minorities, being more likely to go on to study A-levels and then on to university, will be taking a greater proportion of their slackers. Thus, when it comes to grades, whites do best.

It is conceivable that there is unfair treatment in universities somewhere else that affects motivation leading to poorer performance. It is hard to understand why that unfair treatment would be felt in universities and not schools though, where many minorities are outperforming. Considering many ethnic minority people tend to cluster in the metropolitan ‘new’ universities, it does not seem too credible that they will be feeling culturally displaced.

The academic Peter Saunders has noted how there is an inclination to look upon any difference as an inequality and any inequality as resulting from discrimination. Perhaps whites getting firsts more often is somehow the result of discrimination? Or maybe this is an example of what Saunders is talking about? I do not know for sure; no one does. What I wanted to do is show how there are sometimes alternative explanations that are credible and that we should not jump to conclusions. As Norton Juster observed in The Phantom Tollbooth, this is something easily done but difficult to come back from.

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