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You could be forgiven for thinking that Britain has largely solved the problem of getting ethnic minority students into university. “All ethnic minority groups in England are now, on average, more likely to go to university than their white British peers,” reported a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the end of last year.

But such reports neglect the largest ethnic minority in Europe: the Roma, of whom there are 10 to 12 million across the continent.

The higher education participation rate for Roma in Britain is just 3 percent, in Spain it is 2 percent, and in Central and Eastern Europe -- which have some of the highest concentrations of Roma -- just 1 percent go to university, a conference held at the University of Sussex has heard.

Louise Morley, a professor of education at Sussex and one of those involved in Including Roma Communities in European Higher Education: Celebrating Success and Identifying Challenges on May 19, said that one of the main findings to emerge from the conference was “how far” Britain was behind other parts of Europe when it comes to addressing the problem.

“It’s not a group that is ever even mentioned” in U.K. widening participation programs, she said. In 2013, it was estimated that about 200,000 migrant Roma lived in the U.K., a figure that was likely to increase as they flee discrimination in Eastern Europe and look for work in Britain.

However, in Central and Eastern Europe, although there is still much discrimination -- including frequent enrollment of Roma children into “special education schools,” a practice now being challenged in the courts -- there is far more awareness of the issue, Morley said.

Some universities offer American-style affirmative action admissions for Roma, she said, while others, such as the Central European University in Budapest, offer Roma access programs to prepare them for full study.

The lack of access to higher education across Europe was at root a consequence of bad outcomes at school, Morley said. “There is not the population of people prepared for higher education because there are so many problems at the school level,” she explained. The conference heard that pupils face “racist, prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes both in their local communities and in school” in the U.K.

However, Morley conceded that certain cultural aspects might also be to blame. “Some Roma communities just want their women to get married and have children,” she said.

“Yes there are cultural expectations … but young people are resisting that,” she said. “Many see [higher education] as a route out of poverty and as a way to get a new identity.”

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