When does being better qualified provide you with fewer opportunities?

Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity - 13th July 2014

The answer: when you’re a member of one of the UK’s many ethnic minorities.

Figures from the University of Manchester’s Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity, visualised in a recent infographic, indicate that Britain’s job market is becoming less equal, despite the rising level of educational attainment among non-white people. So what’s going on?

It’s no secret that Britain is becoming less white. The most recent census showed that the white ethnic group accounted for 86.0% of the usual resident population in 2011, which was a decrease from 91.3% in 2001 and 94.1% in 1991. Indeed, a study from the University of Leeds predicts that ethnic minorities will make up a fifth of the UK population in less than 40 years’ time. While it should follow that there are corresponding increases in employment among ethnic minorities, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

According to research from the Cabinet Office, black and Asian ethnic minority workers are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers, and are less likely to be found in the higher ranks of management. Those who are employed are more likely to be paid less. Overall, figures from the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity show that white ethnic groups are in a more advantaged position in the labour market compared with other ethnic groups, apart from Irish travellers and Gypsies.

These trends are all the more alarming because ethnic minorities are typically better educated than white Britons. Figures show that, between 1991 and 2011, ethnic minority groups experienced greater overall educational improvements than the white group. At comprehensive school level, Indian, Irish, Chinese, Bangladeshi and black African students did better than white Britons in obtaining five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C. At university level, more than 40% of the UK’s Indian, Chinese and Black African groups had degree-level qualifications. This compares to just 26% of white people in the period between 2010 and 2011.

Of course, it used to be that ethnic minorities were educationally disadvantaged. The rapid changes over the past 20 years have been a result of better access to learning opportunities – both in the UK and overseas. Some of these well-educated ethnic minorities have experienced growth in finding professional, clerical, and managerial employment. However, they are still facing what University of Manchester researchers say are “significant barriers to enjoying the levels of social mobility of their white British peers”.

Institutional racism is often to blame. A government-funded study carried out by Business in the Community reported that “too many” ethnic minorities felt that prestigious jobs – such as those in banking, media, politics and the law – were closed to them. Of the 1,500 people surveyed for the study, more than a quarter ruled out joining the top professions. The report’s authors concluded that “some of the best-paid professions in the UK are still seen as subtly hostile or openly racist towards ethnic minorities”.

Although it’s been over a quarter of a century since the introduction of the Race Relations Act, the problems still remain. Government initiatives intended to address inequalities – such as Ethnic Minority Outreach, Specialist Employment Advisers and Partners Outreach for Ethnic Minorities, and the Ethnic Minority Employment Stakeholder – have largely been ineffective. In response, some labour unions have called for the private sector to be forcibly driven into taking positive action to encourage ethnic diversity. The TUC, in particular, wants companies to carry out compulsory ethnic monitoring.

In the meantime, ethnic minorities must continue to rely on sheer determination to find work. Encouragingly, motivation is still high among the UK’s minority groups. The Business in the Community study found that ethnic minorities have higher aspirations to succeed than their white counterparts.

Author profile

The Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) is a four year interdisciplinary programme of research concerned with understanding changing ethnic inequalities and identities. Our team has over 20 academics, a number of affiliate members and PhD students working from Glasgow, Oxford and Manchester.


The Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity, “When Does Being Better Qualified Provide you with Fewer Opportunities?” (OxHRH Blog, 13 July 2014) <http://humanrights.dev3.oneltd.eu/?p=12006> [date of access].

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