Last week the Office for National Statistics published new data on the ethnic composition of the English and Welsh population, based on the 2021 census. It revealed, to nobody’s surprise, that our population is becoming ever more ethnically diverse. About 18 per cent identified as from a non-white ethnic minority, up from 14 per cent in 2011 and 6 per cent in 1991. Unless something remarkable changes, the non-white share of our population will continue to grow.
Understanding the diversity of experience across ethnic groups has never been so important. Look at the evidence, as we have done as part of a much broader study of inequalities, led by the Nobel Laureate Sir Angus Deaton, and you will be, by turns, surprised, encouraged, and deeply concerned.
One thing is clear: to talk about the black and minority ethnic, or Bame, population as a single group can hide as much as it reveals. There are often bigger differences in education, occupation and income between different ethnic minority groups than there are between the ethnic minority population as a whole and the white population as a whole. Those from Indian and Chinese backgrounds far outstrip others in education, while black Caribbean boys lag behind. British Indians are more likely to be in the top fifth of the income distribution than whites; Bangladeshis and Pakistanis far, far less so. There may of course be shared experiences as members of minorities within this country, but economically at least the differences are frequently bigger than the similarities.
These differences are not constant though. One of the most surprising and encouraging insights to emerge from the data has been the speed and scale of change. In the 1990s men of Pakistani origin were nearly 20 percentage points less likely to be in employment than the white majority. By 2019 the gap had virtually closed, dropping to two percentage points. In 2004 Bangladeshi students lagged a long way behind white students in GCSE attainment. They are now well ahead. These are remarkable changes over relatively short periods.
The educational success of nearly all ethnic minority groups is striking. A larger proportion of most achieve good GCSEs than do whites, despite being poorer on average. Among the poorest pupils — those eligible for free school meals — between 10 per cent and 30 per cent more children of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, black African and Indian heritage achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, than do the poorest whites.
There is one major group that does not fit this overall narrative. Pupils of Caribbean heritage do less well than whites and, uniquely, they have been falling further behind since the early 2010s. They are almost twice as likely to be excluded from school as any other group.
After school, students from all the significant minority groups are more likely to attend university, and by a long distance. In 2019, for example, Bangladeshi students were 27 percentage points, and black African students 29 percentage points more likely to attend some form of higher education than were white British students. That’s despite being much more likely to have grown up poor.
Even this apparent success though comes with some big caveats. While they are more likely to get into university, students from most minority ethnic groups are much less likely than whites to attend the most selective institutions, are more likely to drop out once they get there, and less likely to get top grades. In part that reflects the fact that while they achieve the minimum standards necessary to access higher education they often don’t achieve really good A levels. Among A-level students, while Chinese and Indian pupils are considerably more likely than whites to achieve at least three A grades most other minority groups are a lot less likely to get top grades.
Again, the differences are very big. On the face of it, it looks as if those going on into higher education may be better advised to pursue apprenticeships or other vocational courses. But perhaps not. On average, minority groups still do relatively badly in the labour market, and those with low levels of education do especially badly. Ethnic minority graduates often earn less than their white peers, but the costs of not getting higher-level education are even greater.
Average wages for most are well below those of whites, but again differences between groups are stark; Indian men now earn more on average than white men. But even for Indian men, once you take account of their higher levels of education, wages are below what you might expect. Indeed, the average wage for men in every minority group is below what you would expect given their education. There is ample evidence that discrimination continues to play a significant role. Last week’s publication of a devastating report into the extent of racism in the London fire brigade is evidence enough of some of the deep-seated problems that remain.
Not that all is bleak. Some groups are now well represented in the senior echelons of some professions, including within the NHS and, more recently, in politics. Yet most ethnic minority groups remain grossly under-represented, especially in senior roles, in many professions and public sector organisations. The under-representation of most ethnic minorities in the police is well known, that in the teaching profession, perhaps less so.
There are big differences between immigrants and their children, between men and women, and between those with different family histories. There remains far more to do to understand all these nuances and what drives such a variety of experiences. All of which makes it easy to find data that will confirm pretty much any initial belief: either that the UK is irredeemably racist or that minorities have now achieved full equality. The truth is, as ever, much more complicated.
This article was first published in The Times and is reproduced here with kind permission.