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Understanding young people’s experiences of higher education

education (1)
Published: March 2021

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was established in July 2020, with the aim of examining inequalities across the UK and making evidence-based recommendations to address ethnic disparities. As part of the Commission’s work, we were appointed to conduct independent qualitative consultations on higher education, employment and criminal justice in November 2020-January 2021. 

Aims of the study

This consultation aimed to understand the enabling factors and barriers for working-class young people when accessing higher education, and the factors influencing the type of university they attend. Young people who identified as working class from Black, South Asian and White ethnic groups participated in the consultation. We adopted a multi-ethnic definition of working class (PDF), which allowed us to explore shared working-class experiences across ethnic groups, while also examining how ethnicity and class intersect to shape the experiences of working-class Black and South Asian young people.


Our key findings were:

1. Diversity and financial support: When deciding whether to apply to Russell Group universities, key factors for working-class young people included the diversity of the student population and the availability of financial support.

2. Looking beyond rankings: University ranking or Russell Group status was not always a key factor in working-class young people’s decisions when choosing where to study. Other factors such as course quality, graduate employability and location were often more important.

3. Barriers based on class: Across ethnic groups, working-class young people faced multiple barriers to accessing higher education, including financial constraints and limited social capital. These factors were exacerbated when young people were the first in their families to attend university.

4. Barriers based on ethnicity: Working-class young people from Black and South Asian backgrounds faced additional barriers when accessing higher education. These included experiences of racism at school, and a lack of representation at school, university and in the labour market.


Young people who participated in the study offered the following recommendations to address some of the higher education barriers and challenges they faced:

1. Provide working-class young people with more information and support about post-school/college options.

2. Address discrimination based on class and ethnicity at school.

3. Improve access to financial support for working-class young people to access higher education.

4. Improve diversity and representation from working-class and ethnic minority groups at universities.


We conducted six online focus groups in December 2020 with 31 young people who self-identified as working class and were currently enrolled in an undergraduate degree. Of the young people who participated, 32% identified as Black African or Black Caribbean (including a mixed ethnic background), 32% as Bangladeshi or Pakistani (including a mixed ethnic background), and 35% as White. Due to the small sample, there are limits to how fully the findings reflect the diversity of experiences and views across these groups.

Focus groups were broadly organised by ethnicity and institution type, and were facilitated by lead moderators from a similar ethnic background to participants. This design aimed to create a safe space in which participants could discuss their views and experiences. As discussions often covered potentially distressing topics, including experiences of racism, the research team provided relevant support information at the end of each focus group.