skip to content

What are Cambridge's awarding gaps?

The attainment measure used by the Office for Students (OfS) is the proportion of students achieving good honours (1st or 2:I degree class) compared to lower degree classes. However, in the Cambridge context it is more informative to look at the patterns of gaps between students who are awarded a 1st and those who are awarded 2.I degree class. While Cambridge students - whether White, Black, non-disabled or disabled, women or men - tend to perform well above national benchmarks, we can identify persistent patterns major of discrepancy in the classes awarded in degrees for different cohorts, known as the ‘awarding gaps’.

The University has identified that our most concerning awarding gaps currently are for disabled undergraduates with declared mental health conditions and for Black British undergraduates.


Institutional data analysis

Cambridge's two key awarding gaps were confirmed by the Business Information Team’s detailed statistical analyses of Cambridge student characteristics and attainment outcomes (BIT 2020). This analysis of available institutional data was part of the wider programme of action undertaken by the University of Cambridge to gain a better understanding of the potentially causes for previously identified gaps in attainment; this was the first step towards designing best-placed interventions aimed at eliminating such gaps.

Two separate data sources were used to perform the analysis:

  1. Individualised APP data source as supplied by the Office for Students in March 2019. This data source derives from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Student record data return submitted by the University in years 2013-14 through to 2017-18.
  2. Individualised undergraduate examination results data set covering the period from 2011-12 to 2018-19 and containing annual outcomes for all University of Cambridge undergraduate-level examinations.

The University analysed undergraduate students’ performance in classed examinations, looking in particular at 1st's, good honours and overall percentage marks, to explore:

  • what factor or factors constituted the best predictors of attainment
  • whether significant gaps remained in the attainment of different ethnic groups, when other predictor factors are controlled for
  • whether significant gaps remained in the attainment of different disability groups, when other predictor factors are controlled for

The factors controlled for included gender, ethnicity group, disability group, age group, secondary school type, Tripos, month of birth, POLAR4 and IMD quintile (for UK-domiciled students), previous attainment (UCAS tariff) and A-level score, numbers of A-levels obtained and exam results in the first year of study.


Key findings of statistical data analysis

The analysis of Cambridge data shows that there is a small but statistically significant discrepancy in the rate of 1st-class degrees awarded to Black British students compared with white students, by women students compared to men, and by students with declared mental health conditions compared to non-disabled students. These gaps exist despite students entering Cambridge with the same high entry qualifications.

Predictors of attainment

The strongest predictors of an awarding gap in the final year of study were found to be (in this order of predictive strength):

  1. the results of first-year examinations
  2. course/Tripos


The impact of being from Black or Asian ethnic groups was found to be statistically significant, even when all other factors were controlled for – with the gap being larger for students from Black ethnic groups than from Asian ethnic groups. Though the gap did reduce when controlling for the outcomes of first-year exam results, it nonetheless remained.


When the effect of disability on outcomes is examined independently from all other factors in all years, being in the declared mental health condition group has a significant influence on a student's likelihood of obtaining a 1st-class degree.


For more details, see the report of the Analysis of Student Characteristics and Attainment Outcomes at the University of Cambridge (BIT, 2020).


Next: Impact of COVID-19