Getting on, not just getting in, is what matters

One of the most startling findings from the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018 was that in 23 UK universities more than half of the students admitted are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

In 2017, Aston University was found to have admitted a bigger proportion of ethnic minority students than any other university in the UK (72.4% according to UCAS admissions cycle data). While this is welcome news and broadly reflects the diversity of our region’s young population (68.9% of the school population in Birmingham is BAME, compared to 31% nationally), these league tables are focussing on only a small part of the real issue. We strongly believe that all universities should be judged not by the number of minority students they admit, but what these students go on to achieve as a result. It is getting on, not just getting in, that really matters.

Outputs and impact, not inputs

Measures of inclusion are a welcome and important addition to newspaper league tables, but measures reflecting the performance and outcomes of underrepresented student groups are not currently used. Universities should at the very least keep a watchful eye over such metrics. The Office for Students (OfS) certainly does. Chris Millward, the Director of Fair Access and Participation, has made it clear he wants HE providers to be more self-reflective and make more robust use of evaluation and data, and rightly so.

It’s also clear from the recent OfS consultation on Access and Participation Plans that a publicly available dataset will, among other things, display BAME access, continuation, attainment and progression gaps. This will make it far easier to compare the performance of higher education providers. Where there are stark inequalities, they will be out in the open.

Ordering our own house

When it comes to BAME access and success, Aston University makes for an interesting case study. We are hosting a Universities UK and National Union of Students evidence session on tackling degree attainment gaps by ethnicity. We are an institution where the majority of students identify as BAME. Analysis of our own Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) data shows that BAME students are less likely to discontinue their studies than white students.

Our own internal data show that BAME students are not only more likely to seek help from our Learning Development Centre (which supports students with skills such as maths and academic writing), but that those students who do seek help gain a higher overall mark than those who do not.

Despite this kind of support, and our diverse student population, like many universities Aston University still has a BAME attainment gap, with more of our white undergraduate students achieving a first-class honours degree or a 2:1 than their BAME counterparts. Although our gap is smaller than that of many institutions, it does appear as early as the first year of study, and so it remains an issue high on our agenda.

Placement years

Importantly, BAME and white students from Aston University have excellent career outcomes. Nevertheless, despite exceeding our TEF benchmarked data for both groups, a gap remains between BAME and white students. One of the ways we have been tackling this is via the Aston Placement Year, as we believe industry experience is one of the best tools available to level the playing field – both in terms of attainment and employment outcomes. What’s more, our research has shown that placement work experience may mitigate the lower achievement levels of BAME students.

Despite this, we find that BAME students are overall less likely to undertake a placement year than white students. If placements can be part of the solution for reducing the attainment gap, this scenario urgently needs to be addressed.

So, what is to be done? Along with Birmingham City University, City University of London, and Ulster University, Aston is leading ‘Levelling the Playing Field’ – a project supported by the HEFCE (now OfS) Catalyst Fund which is scaling up existing interventions that are proven to support increased take-up of placement and work-based learning. The focus is on engaging harder-to-reach groups through targeting specific courses, tailored communications, and using additional people on the ground to maximise reach. Ultimately, we aim to get more students to take placements, to reduce our BAME attainment gap, and to get more students into graduate-level employment.

If anything can be learnt from our experience, it is that universities should interrogate their own data fully to understand the nature of their attainment gap and should look beyond headline data which could mask inequalities. University leadership should also consider the role of work experience in levelling the playing field for underrepresented students in their own institutional context.

In considering this kind of intervention, universities need to question whether they are doing all they can to make sure the students who could benefit the most are the ones accessing the opportunities. And of the wider policy context, the OfS proposals will do more to shine a light on where there are gaps and inequalities in student outcomes. It is time that newspaper league tables shifted their focus away from entry tariffs and satisfaction data, and towards inclusive student outcomes.

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