Ethnic education in Britain: how has the second generation fared?

A new analysis of data from the General Household Survey and the Labour Force Survey shows many second-generation migrants have fared better than their parents in the education system. But some groups have lagged behind.

Photo credit: Liberal Democrats

Generational changes in the educational qualifications of visible ethnic minorities are important. They tell us whether the second generation have been able to enjoy the fruits of educational expansion in the last five decades in Britain as much as the whites have.

Yet there is little systematic research on the changing educational profile of ethnic minority groups in Britain over time or across generations. This paper aims to make a contribution by looking at the ethnic education from the early 1970s to the present time and by comparing first and second generations.

The visible ethnic minority groups in Britain have been found to face numerous disadvantages in the labour market, such as very high rates of unemployment during the recession years. Much of this misfortune is attributed to lower levels of education or to qualifications acquired in foreign countries.

It might be expected that education could play an important role in avoiding the risks of unemployment and worklessness even when the employment situation was harsh. And we found education did have a pronounced protective effect against unemployment and inactivity for the working-age men and women.

Men with tertiary education are less than one third as likely to be unemployed as those with no educational qualifications (4.3 and 13.8 percent respectively). The differences in the workless rates are even more marked: 10 and 28.7 percent respectively. The differences for women are less marked in terms of unemployment but much more salient in terms of worklessness: 4.2 vs 6.3 percent in unemployment, and 19.2 and 46 percent in worklessness, between people with degree and those with no formal qualifications.

Another way of looking at the role of education is through its relationship with occupational attainment. Data on access to professional and managerial (salariat) positions from 1972 to 2013 in the GHS/LFS series shows clearly that around 80 percent of men and women with degrees are in salariat positions, compared to around 13 percent of those with no formal qualifications.

Generational differences between ethnic groups

How are educational qualifications distributed by ethnic groups over time and across generations?

The data in the graph below show the educational qualifications of whites and of visible ethnic minorities in the first generation and second generations. The second generation has a very similar profile of educational qualifications to whites, which are in clear contrast to those of the first generation, which is characterised by having very high proportions with only primary level or no formal education.

The first generation is more stratified than the second generation in having both a higher proportion of degree holders and a much higher proportion with no secondary education than whites. Overall, the first generation leads the way in terms of degree-level education but lags behind by having a much higher proportion with no formal qualifications.

Further analysis shows that among the sample used in this study (men and women aged 16-60), 26 per cent of first-generation degree-holders obtained their degrees in the UK.

Educational qualifications by generation

Educational qualifications by generation

Gender and ethnicity

It is equally or perhaps more important to look at gender differences in these generational changes.

When we look at changes over the last five decades in terms of educational attainment for whites and for first and second generation visible ethnic minorities, by men and women separately, three features manifest themselves.

Firstly, there is a considerable upgrading of the educational structure and notable gender equalisation for whites. The proportion with tertiary education increased from 12 per cent to 31 per cent for men, and from seven per cent to 34 per cent for women, between the 1970s and the 2010s. The proportions with only primary or no education decreased from 66 per cent to 21 per cent and from 76 per cent to 19 per cent for men and women respectively.

Secondly, the second generation benefited greatly from the British education system and made, if anything, greater strides than whites in obtaining tertiary level education. Both men and women were two percentage points higher than their white peers at this level of education in the 2010s.

Thirdly, in contrast to whites and the second generation, we found much greater gender differences among the first generation, in terms of both tertiary and primary levels of education. First generation men and women had similar levels of tertiary education in the first four decades and higher proportions in the last decade than white men and women. But they had much higher levels of poor education than whites in all five decades. In each decade, especially the first four decades, first generation women were behind their male counterparts by around five to 10 points at this level.

We compared the five main ethnic minority groups: black Caribbean, black African, Indian, Pakistani/Bangladeshi and Chinese.

For both men and women, we found the Chinese, black Africans and Indians were very well educated. First generation Indian women were behind Chinese and black African women in the first decade but quickly improved their situation as time went on.

For these three groups, men’s education was generally better than that of their female peers in earlier times but females in the three groups, especially in the second generation, made very rapid progress and caught up with or surpassed men in tertiary education.

For the second generation among these three groups, gender inequality in education, whilst visible in earlier decades, was not found in the most recent period.

Turning to black Caribbean and Pakistani/Bangladeshi groups, we saw a rather different picture. Firstly, they had lower levels of education than the three other groups. In the 1970s, around 82 to 95 per cent of migrants from these groups had no secondary education. First generation Pakistani/Bangladeshi women’s poor education persisted throughout the period covered here, amounting to nearly 70 percent even in the current time.

Second-generation black Caribbean men seemed to lag behind: in the 2010s, only 22 per cent had tertiary education. This was nine percentage points behind their white peers.

While family poverty might help explain the difference with white men, it would not explain why their sisters, namely second generation black Caribbean women, had made such wonderful progress: they were more likely to have higher education even than white women, at 36 and 32 per cent respectively. Second generation Pakistani/Bangladeshi men and women also caught up with white men and women in terms of tertiary education.

Overall, the first generation was characterised by a great variety but the second generation has been making very notable progress, with several groups out-performing the whites. Black Caribbean men need to work harder: what your sisters can do, you can!