With dental students preparing for the start of a new academic year, a report published by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) recently has highlighted the stark inequalities between ethnic minorities entering the professions.
What’s the problem?
Most strikingly, the researchers found that, in 2014/15, just 25 Black-Caribbean students were admitted to medicine and dentistry courses. This is just one example of, what the report calls, a “huge problem” in social mobility and ethnic diversity at different universities and across subjects.
While a number of ethnic minority groups are well represented in the dental student population, analysis suggests that there is consistent under-representation of African-Caribbean students.
Figures for the 2012/13 cohort of dental students show that ‘Black – Caribbean’ and ‘Black – Other’ students each account for less than 0.5 per cent of dental students. The profile of those accepted to study dentistry inevitably shapes the dental workforce.
It is unsurprising, then, that the under-representation of black students is reflected in the number of black dentists, who, according to the GDC, account for just one per cent of all registered dentists, whereas black people account for around three per cent of the UK population.
This is not only a matter of social mobility and equal access, it is also important that dentistry, and healthcare more generally, has a workforce that reflects fully the diversity of the communities it serves and cares for.
There is evidence to suggest that healthcare workers drawn from ethnic minority communities can help to ensure adequate health provision in underserved communities and to provide culturally-competent care to particular groups.
Intake differences between dental schools
However, the picture across dental schools is not uniform. There are a number of universities where the dental school is actually more diverse than the university as a whole, for example, the dentistry degree at Peninsula is 2.9 times more diverse than Plymouth University as a whole.
It may be that this is in part because Peninsula is a graduate-entry dental school or because of particular recruitment and admissions practices. This suggests that, alongside nation-wide structural factors, there may also be factors particular to each dental school that shape who applies and who is admitted to study dentistry.
Of course, the focus should not merely be on admissions, but also on the experiences of ethnic minority students while they are at university. This most recent research finds that ethnic minority students, particularly those used to living in diverse areas, are concerned they will experience racism, if they choose to study at a less diverse university, or in a less diverse area.
Many universities have widening participation schemes, which aim to target able students from disadvantage backgrounds, but does more need to be done to encourage a more diverse professional workforce?
Changes needed to address inequalities
The IPR report calls for deep structural and cultural change in universities to address the inequalities in access for some ethnic groups and to promote greater diversity. In particular, universities are encouraged to address the employment practices that are maintaining a majority white and male academic staff.
According to the Dental Schools Council’s most recent survey, the overwhelming majority of dental academic staff are white (72.6 per cent) and white dentists are over-represented among dental academics compared with the proportion of dental registrants they account for (49 per cent).
Notably, there is a higher proportion of white academics in the most senior roles and a greater share of ethnic minorities in junior teaching roles. While black dentists account for a similar proportion of the dental academic workforce as they do of the dental register, at one per cent, this is a substantial under-representation compared to the UK population as a whole.
As with many studies of dental students, the grouping together of medicine and dentistry in the IPR report provides difficulties in drawing specific conclusions, but this evidence adds to that from a number of sources and provides a clear indication of a problem of access for particular ethnic groups, with real consequences for social mobility and equality.
The BDA’s Policy Team will be undertaking further research into how the profession can work together to widen access to dentistry over the coming months.
We are always keen to hear your thoughts and your experiences too, one of our new student dentists has recently blogged on this topic and we’re keen to hear from you too, please get in touch.
BDA Policy Advisor