The relatively poor academic performance of women undergraduates at Oxbridge has been a cause for concern for some time. At the end of their studies proportionately more men achieve the top (first-class) marks while more women achieve second-class marks. Recently the University of Cambridge funded a large-scale exploration of some of the social factors that might relate to differences in academic performance among undergraduates.
The study analysed the finals results of all Cambridge undergraduates in 1997 and 1998. These revealed that not just gender but also a student's ethnic origin and school background have an influence on the marks they achieve. It also emerged that the connection between achievement and social factors varies widely in different disciplines.
For example, although men outperform women in mathematics, the clear high performers in maths are students from ethnic minorities: 40 per cent of students from all ethnic minorities were awarded a mathematics first compared to 33 per cent of white students. However, students from ethnic minorities do not perform as well in history, where they are awarded 12 per cent fewer firsts, 10 per cent fewer 2(1)s and 20 per cent more 2(2)s than their white contemporaries.
One particular ethnic group, black students, is performing very poorly across the university. Only 3 per cent of black students achieved a first class in the two years studied; while 16 per cent were awarded a third class (compared to a Cambridge average of 2.6 per cent).
The analysis also threw up some seemingly odd patterns. For example, students who described their ethnic background as Indian performed strongly compared to other ethnic groups. But this was only true of Indian students from independent schools - more than 30 per cent of whom were awarded firsts. Indian students from state schools performed very poorly and only 5 per cent were awarded first-class marks.
What is so striking about these results is that previous educational achievement - typically GCSE and A-level scores - is pretty much "fixed" at Cambridge. Most students have been the highest achievers at school, and so it is tempting to ascribe the differences at finals to something within the Cambridge system. Perhaps a stuffy, male-dominated, public school atmosphere within many colleges militates against the success of certain students?
However, social class was unrelated to marks in finals. And, contrary to suspicions, students coming to Cambridge from the independent sector do not outperform their contemporaries from state schools across the university.
But a student's school background does seem to have an effect in somesubjects. For example, while women and men studying law at Cambridge performed equally well, those from comprehensive and grammar schools achieved significantly more first-class marks (17 per cent) than those from independent schools (11 per cent). In history, on the other hand, 24 per cent of students from independent schools were awarded firsts compared to 8 per cent from comprehensive schools. …