Tackling the BME attainment gap is about lived experience

The BME attainment gap is an issue for universities across the country.

In 2017 we could see it was an issue for us at the University of Bristol. In 2014-15 white students were 11% more likely to gain a first or 2:1 than BME students.

As a black student at the University, Bristol SU’s Equality, Liberation and Access Officer Hannah Dualeh was astonished by the lack of BME Students at the university. She found navigating the overwhelmingly white campus difficult and felt like an outsider as a black working-class woman from Liverpool. She wanted the University to sit up and listen to the experiences of students like her. And she decided to do something about it.

Taking action

With support from SU colleagues, Hannah bid for £5k from the University’s Widening Participation department to run a study exploring possible reasons for the BME attainment gap at Bristol. This was a study I ended up managing, working with three BME student researchers. These student researchers were absolutely key to the project, ensuring that BME student voices were at the heart of the research.

I was aware that as a white researcher I couldn’t fully understand the BME student experience, and BME students would not relate to me in the same way as they would their peers. The student researchers, Aisha Rana-deshmukh, Chante Joseph and Trang Tran, were involved in every stage of the research, including design, delivery, analysis and report writing.

The project involved a mixed methodology of a survey, two focus groups and an innovative ‘snapchat’ style photo diary delivered through Facebook messenger. The survey received 240 responses (a 9% response rate) while 11 students took part in the 8-week diary and 14 took part in our focus groups.

What did we find out?

Across the research project, a predominant theme was BME students feeling isolated at the University, reporting that they were often either the only BME person in a room or one of very few. 55% of survey respondents felt that BME representation within the student body was extremely or relatively bad, with just 21% reporting that it was good. BME representation in the staff body was also felt to be poor, with 67% of survey respondents feeling that this was extremely or relatively bad.

Halls in particular were described as ‘very white’ and students recounted the shock of arriving in lecture theatres and seeing an overwhelmingly white cohort. One student commented that this made it difficult to make friends as ‘people tend to be friends with others who are like them’. Feelings of isolation were exacerbated by a private/state school divide where students tended to stick in friendship groups of either private or state school students. Some students also reported an unease about contributing their own perspective within an academic setting as they didn’t want to be seen as the representative of all BME students. Given that students learn best when participating in learning environments, such experiences could potentially contribute to the BME attainment gap. These feelings of isolation were captured in rich detail by students’ Facebook diary images.

Being me

Some students felt that they couldn’t be “completely themselves” at the University, and felt they had to hide their ‘ethnic side’ from white friends. Students noted that they felt more comfortable with friends from home, and that at the university “you feel you have to change the way you speak and behave”. Several students in our focus groups even spoke of “performing whiteness” and “playing the game” to fit in at the university. However, in areas where BME representation was better, such as Dentistry, students felt more able to be themselves. Cultural societies at the SU also gave students a chance to have a place where they felt they belonged.

We also found that BME students at the university were frequently experiencing microaggressions and overt racism. This included comments to a diary participant that she couldn’t be a veterinary sciences student because she was not white, students mocking south Asian names in class and inappropriate questions such as “do you speak Indian” and “where are you really from”.

Students also reported racist and hostile behaviour towards BME staff, such as students mocking lecturers’ accents. Notably, several of our diary participants experienced racism in the short 8-week period of the diary. When asked why they thought the BME attainment gap existed, BME students directly linked the gap to such experiences.

Mental health was also felt to be a factor in the BME attainment gap. This isolation felt for some students like “a weight” on their shoulder and one student reported that this had led them to take a year out of their studies. These experiences were compounded by a lack of BME specific support, with some students feeling that white staff members could not understand the problems affecting them.

Why is my curriculum so white?

BME students on certain courses also reported experiencing an overly white curriculum. 33% of students felt that the inclusion of diverse perspectives in their course was poor, while 28% felt it was good. Arts and Social Sciences students were more likely to rate diversity in the curriculum as good, with 39% reporting this compared to 19% of STEM respondents.

However, in qualitative feedback curriculum diversity was seen as more important in the Arts and Social Sciences, as many students saw decolonisation as less relevant to Science based subjects. Arts curriculums were described as extremely ‘euro-centric’ and there were also issues around diversity being segregated into certain units rather than integrated into the whole curriculum. Many students felt that a lack of diversity in the curriculum had an impact on students’ engagement with their courses.

One student commented that “I feel like minority ethnic groups are less likely to engage with their course when they are taught about things that do not relate to their history or consider their individual knowledges”. Students who had been given the opportunity to study from their own perspective found the experience transformational, and several diary participants spoke excitedly of their dissertations which they had written on race related issues.

What happened next?

The research was presented to the University in Spring 2017, and we’ve seen loads of important changes since then.

  • A task and finish group was set up for the research, and a target was set to reduce the BME attainment gap.
  • Bristol SU launched the Bristol BME Powerlist in 2018, highlighting Bristol’s 100 most inspiring BME individuals and bringing them together in a special networking event with students.
  • A new Student Inclusion team has also been created at the University, with a Student Inclusion Officer (BAME) working full time on BAME student inclusion.
  • BME Success Advocates have been introduced, with 24 recruited for the 2019-20 academic year.
  • The university is also now working towards the ECU Race Equality Charter.

I’ve been delivering research at the Students’ Union for some years now, and it’s rare to see so many concrete changes coming from a piece of research. Tackling the BME attainment gap is now a key priority for the University, and I know this research helped open many eyes to the issues faced by BME students. I chose this piece of research to speak about at Membership Services Conference 2019 because I hoped it would inspire other Students’ Unions to think about using research methods to make change in their institutions. Hopefully it has done just that.

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