BAME doesn’t help us understand students

Maisha Islam interrogates ways to get beyond "BAME" with a focus instead on students' lives and experiences.

Maisha Islam is the Student Engagement Research and Projects Officer at the University of Winchester.

For a long time there has been a sector reliance on the term “BAME” to refer mainly to students from non-white backgrounds.

While both scholars and practitioners have long argued against the homogeneity assumed by the term and the way it masks the specific challenges related to groups of students under this umbrella, there seems to be little shift from its continued use.

Is it therefore time to bid adieu to our love-hate relationship with the oxymoronic term “BAME” – an acronym that simultaneously unifies and simplifies the experiences of an inherently diverse cohort of students?

The ‘A’ team

I recently launched a report from The University of Winchester which steers away from this term by exploring the lived experiences of our Asian students.

The catalyst for our research stemmed from disaggregating our BAME degree-awarding gap, as advised by the Office for Students, which found large and statistically significant gaps seen in both degree outcomes and progression rates between our White and Asian UK-domiciled students.

This presented a contrasting finding where degree-awarding gaps are usually found to be the largest and most pressing between white and black students. Without detracting from the importance of paying attention to Black students’ experiences, if we are to eliminate our degree-awarding gaps both for institutions and the sector as a whole, there must then be a recognition of the way in which inequality is context-specific and differentially experienced.

An underexamined experience?

As with most research projects, delving into existing work is a necessary and guiding prerequisite before getting stuck in. Reading into this area suggests that, as a sector, we have known the consistently low levels of academic satisfaction reported by students belonging to asian backgrounds over the years – it’s right there in both the SAES and the NSS.

Yet we have almost turned a blind eye, and we’ve not seen the sort of intensity of interrogation as to why this might be that has accompanied Black and wider BAME degree-awarding gaps.

A dearth in literature and investigation of Asian student experiences may be explained due to the varying levels of attainment amongst these students – where Chinese and Indian students’ higher relative performance to Bangladeshi and Pakistani students overlooks very key differences apparent amongst this group. This reinforces one message within our report – that “even the ‘A’ in ‘BAME’ warrants further separation”.

Lessons learnt

Holding focus groups with students self-identifying from Asian backgrounds as well as utilising student research partners within our institutional student-staff partnership scheme, our centralisation of student voice (particularly from a group which does not often get heard) was very much at the heart of what made this research successful.

The mere existence of the project reinforced a perception of belonging to these students who felt the university actively cared about improving their experience – one which is at times muddied by being made to feel culturally at odds with their white british peers, and very little which recognised and represented their intersectional identities within the university community.

You wouldn’t, for example, expect to be dusting off your sari to attend a Bollywood event – unless it was at another university!

However, one finding, which warrants further investigation, was the role of being “unlabelled” carers amongst some of our (south) Asian students. For many students within the focus groups, families (especially their parents) held a high level of importance. Often, their student lives and decisions would be determined or heavily influenced by this unit.

For example, wanting to stay at home in order to care for parents and assist in their day-to-day living. Importantly, these decisions were willing ones driven by love and respect, though a recognition that balancing two roles was at times (understandably) difficult to manage.

Additionally, there were compounded levels of difficulty when adjusting to the transition of being a university student, particularly in a predominantly white setting – as Tamanna put it:

When you come here, you come here with the notion that you’re not going somewhere that knows about your culture in any kind of way.”

The cultural beliefs and values of significance largely came back to aspects such as religion and family which, when respected, greatly instilled a sense of place to the university community.

Moving forwards

By recognising the aspects of our asian students’ lives which are important to them, the university can now ensure an environment where they are appropriately supported and are not made to adapt into an inequitable system. Our report highlights how improving these experiences needs to be systemic and thus offers 21 recommendations across four areas – campus culture, access, success and progression activity, learning and teaching, and the students’ union.

These recommendations underwent consultation from the students’ union’s newly established Asian Student Network (a quick win following internal dissemination of the project findings) who were able to tell us which recommendations required prioritisation from the institution – from exploring tailored mental health provision to better supporting employment opportunities and aspirations of asian students taking creative degrees (where, culturally, they may be deemed as “less valuable”/”unattractive”).

So, even if as a sector we are not yet ready to let go of our love for an all-encompassing acronym such as BAME, we can at least commit to better understanding the heterogeneity of the students who make up this group in order to ensure effective redressal for those unfairly neglected under the term.

The full report – Disaggregating the BAME degree-awarding gap: Understanding and exploring the Asian student experience

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