Let’s fix the Black attainment gap

There are issues at all levels of post-compulsory education where race is a determinant factor in students’ experiences of education, and yet Black students’ experiences have been routinely minimised, dismissed, or ignored by those able to make change.

These issues should be tackled simply to make sure our education systems are fair to Black students, although often they highlight the structural and systemic issues affecting all students that plague our institutions.

The Black attainment gap

I am delighted to have just launched a project in partnership with Universities UK and Valerie Amos designed to gather and audit best practice on what institutions – and students’ unions – can do to begin to eradicate the “Black attainment gap”.

This refers to the growing problem where students from “BME” or “BAME” backgrounds are less likely than their white peers to get first or upper second-class degrees. This effect persists (at varying levels for students from different ethnic heritages) after you take into consideration socioeconomic background, entry grades, and a host of other factors.

The Black attainment gap, out of all the equity issues relating to ethnicity NUS have highlighted, is the most clearly defined via large-scale research. The research that proves that higher education institutions can make a difference on the attainment gap, a study of over 650,000 students and adjusting for many more than the above factors, is over a decade old.

The sector has made some inroads in tackling the attainment gap. One of these is thanks to Advance HE – previously the Equality Challenge Unit – and its Race Equality Charter. Bronze awards in the REC demonstrates institutional commitment to racial justice – in itself, demonstrating commitment to race equity is a challenge and not one that most universities in this country have managed. In addition, under HEFCE, grants were given to groups of institutions under the Catalyst Fund to begin work on this area.

Race, in the context of equality, diversity and inclusion, is now firmly in the remit of the Access and Participation Plan framework – a development this year thanks to the Higher Education and Research Act, on which NUS lobbied extensively. I hope the recommendations from the audit we are conducting with UUK will also steer future access guidance. But access, retention and success at institutions has always been relatable to race. The new regulations merely reflect the existing reality.

The scope of the problem

Black students are now slightly more likely to go into education as an undergraduate than their white peers. This is one area where work on widening participation has worked, but it masks further issues around parity for Black students, including stratification in the sector between students who commute to local universities, and those who move away for university. Black students are still less likely to go to the institutions that are considered “top end” and have consistently higher earnings for graduates than their peers. This is where the admissions at my previous institution, Cambridge, and also at Oxford, are a key issue, especially as certain colleges within those institutions have recognised and attempted to address the barriers, while others have not.

There are also huge racial disparities in progression to academia. This is compounded by the lack of parity in admissions, but additionally affects students intersectionally: Black African women are woefully underrepresented in research and academic positions, for example. Beyond a lack of role models, this in turn impacts on one of the other key issues if you wanted to make change on the attainment gap.

The curriculum

Curriculum is not fixed. It should be developed as our understanding of the world develops, and as research in universities finds new knowledge. Researchers are developing a profound understanding of the lasting impact of colonialism and empire, and yet this work is not being applied across all universities to decolonise curricula and enrich our knowledge with Black voices and powerful, intersectional knowledge. Often where curriculum co-creation and decolonisation could make the most impact, academics are unwilling to engage with students and fellow staff on making change.

This unwillingness to develop curricula, make change and incorporate new knowledge is compounded by structural changes to the sector that discourage long-term thinking. Students are taught by academics on precarious contracts which give them little opportunity to innovate, thanks to a broken funding system rejected by students. The funding system also creates risk-averse, short-term approaches in institutions – and was highly criticised by the Treasury Committee of Parliament for creating a situation where ensuring student numbers, not quality of degree course, is incentivised.

How much longer?

It is positive that the government, Office for Students and bodies such as Universities UK are now recognising that work on race equity in the context of the Black attainment gap is the pressing priority NUS and researchers have highlighted, but it has taken too long to get to the point of action. Ethnicity in HE is a bigger issue than just Oxbridge admissions: racial injustices, such as the clearly defined Black attainment gap, are issues that the whole sector has shied away from accepting and tackling head-on.

This is the key issue around race in higher education. When students tell our institutions and our governments that there is a problem, we should be listened to, and action, by our institutions and the structures in the sector that support them, should be taken.

3 responses to “Let’s fix the Black attainment gap

  1. At the Open University, we have moved away from referring to an attainment gap, and instead refer to a degree awarding gap. Language is important and this shift emphasises the need for the University to change, rather than working out how to ‘fix’ the student. A small step but a crucial one.

  2. I think this is really useful. I did something similar when I advocated for a change some years ago in our Faculty from ‘study skills’ to ‘academic development skills’ subtle but a powerful shift in terms of perception. .

  3. So is it the case that you assume all students to be the same, and would achieve the same outcomes across the board if it were not for your institutional practices?

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