Participation in Higher Education and Religion

‘Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs more likely to go to university than their Christian classmates’, proclaimed the headline to Richard Vaughan’s article in The TES for 22 July 2011. The story was subsequently picked up by the Daily Telegraph on 23 July and by some online media.

Vaughan’s report referred to the findings of ‘a landmark Government research programme’, and a bit of delving by BRIN has identified the source as the Department for Education’s Statistical Bulletin B01/2011, published on 7 July and available at:

This particular issue of the Statistical Bulletin was devoted to the activities and experiences of 19-year-olds in England (measured by their academic age – their actual ages would have been 19 and 20), based upon the results from successive waves of the Youth Cohort Study and the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE, also known as Next Steps).

The data on participation in higher education by religion came from the LSYPE alone and appear in Table 2.1.1. They measure enrolment in higher education at academic age 19 (wave 7, 2010) against religion at academic age 15 (wave 3, 2006). Obviously, as the Statistical Bulletin acknowledges, some teenagers may have changed their religion during the intervening four years.

The greatest participation in higher education was recorded among Hindus (77%). Then came Sikhs (63%), Muslims (53%), Christians (45%), and those without religion (32%). Cell sizes were too small to publish figures for Buddhists, Jews and other groups. 

Vaughan commented that: ‘The statistics reflect wider research which shows British white working-class students do worse at school and are less likely to go on to higher education than Asian pupils.’

Quoted in The TES, Professor Steve Strand of Warwick University also doubted whether the LSYPE statistics exemplified a genuinely religious effect, describing religion as just a ‘proxy’ for ethnicity.

‘The fact that white working-class pupils are the least likely to go to university and those from Asian groups are more likely has nothing to do with whether they are Christian or Hindu,’ Strand said.

‘It’s to do with a number of factors, but (generally speaking) white working-class children and their parents often do not see the relevance of the curriculum or of attending university. Asian families, even if they are from difficult socio-economic backgrounds, see education as a way out.’

The TES additionally cited Muslim and Hindu spokespersons, lauding the higher educational aspirations of their communities, as well as a representative of the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales, who pointed to non-religious influences as explanation for the apparent under-performance of Christians.

The Statistical Bulletin also included (in Tables 1.2.1 and 1.2.2 respectively) analyses of Level 2 (five GCSEs at grades A*-C or equivalent) and Level 3 (two or more A Levels or equivalent) educational achievement by age 19, disaggregated by religion.

Those with no religion again sat at the bottom of the faith hierarchy, with 23% having no Level 2 qualification and 50% none at Level 3. Hindus topped both lists (92% attaining Level 2 and 79% Level 3), closely followed by Sikhs (91% and 73%). Christians came third and Muslims fourth, thus reversing their positions in the higher education table.  

Another interesting cross-tabulation by religion is to be found in Tables 5.1.1 and 5.1.2, relating to sexual experience by age 19. These reveal that those without religion were most likely to have had sex (94%) and Muslims the least (45%), by their own admission. 89% of Christians were sexually experienced and 62% of Hindus and Sikhs. The irreligious were also the likeliest to have had sex without any precautions or contraception (58%).

These five tables in the Statistical Bulletin naturally have the potential for adversarial exploitation, in terms of current debates about the inter-relationships between religion, ethnicity, education, social capital and morality. It would be particularly fascinating to have a comment on them from a secularist perspective. 

Given the public interest potential of LSYPE, it is worth reminding BRIN users that LSYPE datasets are routinely deposited at the Economic and Social Data Service as SN 5545, and thus available for secondary analysis, although wave 7 has not yet been released at the time of writing.

Wave 7 will be the final wave for which the Department for Education is responsible; the Economic and Social Research Council is currently assessing whether it can take over the study.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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