The black attainment gap is a long standing issue that the sector is still struggling to treat with the urgency that it deserves.
Now, in light of TEF and the grading of institutions, it appears that there is a missed opportunity to use the brutal publicity of an Olympic-style medal awarding system to punish those whose attainment gaps are starkest.
First class degrees
Our friends at HESA have kindly helped us crunch the data showing the attainment gaps between white and black UK students at different institutions last year. The data shows that there is a diverse range of institutions where an attainment gap exists between white and black graduates. Astonishingly, there are six universities where not a single home black graduate got a first in 2015-16, including the universities of Buckingham, Oxford, and Exeter.
The disparity in awards of first class honours is stark when examined along the lines of race. It is interesting to see that a wide range of types of institutions are guilty of this disparity. Perhaps more worrying is that fact that despite the shocking nature of these statistics, the majority of institutions where a black student is far less likely to achieve an outstanding degree as a white student have been rated as Gold and Silver in the TEF: over a quarter of institutions with the worst attainment gaps are rated Gold, and over half are rated Silver. This is despite TEF’s attempts to account for differential student outcomes through the use of split metrics.
Upper second degrees
The pattern persists for the awarding of 2:1 degrees as well. While there are some institutions where black students are awarded more upper second class degrees than white students, it appears that this is at the cost of a wide attainment gap at a first honours level. Imperial College London is an example, where more black students achieve a 2:1 degree than their white counterparts by a 20% difference. However, 14% fewer black students find themselves with first class degrees. Black students at the University of Oxford achieve 13% more 2:1 degrees, but receive firsts at a 34% lower rate. The numbers in both cases are small, but significant enough: Oxford had 25 black graduates in 2015-16 (compared to 2145 white graduates), whilst Imperial had 30 black graduates (compared to 555 white graduates).
While there are those who have a tendency to defend the sector using a student deficit model to explain away the data, this is nothing short of a crisis for higher education. Unfortunately, the crisis is not a new one, and we should be asking ourselves how to make an equitable university system, where your grade is not influenced by your skin colour.
And with TEF being promoted as a tool for student choice, there is a serious question to be asked about the ethics of grading institutions Silver or Gold if a black student attending said institution is unlikely to be awarded top marks. It appears that in many cases it is Gold for white students, but Bronze for black students.
Analysis of TEF retention data highlighted that there were unexpected inconsistencies between groups – with negative flags showing up for non-continuation rates for white students more frequently than for black students. In this case, there is a clear, consistent trend of white students achieving better grades than black students. It’s indisputable, and there is clearly an institutionalised problem of how institutions treat and educate black students.
If we look at the full range of ethnicity and attainment data below we can see that in some – though fewer – institutions, there are also significant attainment gaps between white and Asian students.
A couple of caveats – this data does not control for other variables such as prior attainment or subject mix, but the universal nature of this problem across the sector points to it being a profound institutional problem.
What can be done?
The new regulator could take upon itself the opportunity to penalise institutions for attainment gaps. It is time for penalties over incentives: it’s hard to think of an issue more urgent, but we all know how slowly the sector usually moves. While TEF in its current format looks at multiple metrics, including race-based split metrics, it seems that it hasn’t picked up on universities’ failure to support black and Asian students to succeed. Ultimately, TEF has failed in its aim to “take account of any significant differences in the quality of teaching and learning experienced by different student groups” (to quote the TEF year two consultation) if it has awarded universities Gold ratings when there are significant racial attainment gaps.
The challenge is well put in this presentation on BME attainment: “it is ethically dubious to promote the idea of widening participation in such groups [ethnic minorities] if they cannot be guaranteed equitable outcomes”. In this case, it is ethically dubious to hide away the fact that the university experience at many institutions produces inequitable outcomes, and fail to do anything about it.
CLARIFICATION: This article was amended at 4pm on 11/8/17 to clarify that all the data published here is for home undergraduates only and does not include international students.
Excludes ‘other’ and ‘unknown’. This table is best viewed in full screen.