Radical change required to close the BME gap

The National Union of Students and Universities UK’s long-awaited report into the BME Attainment Gap has landed, and we are calling for stronger leadership, conversations about race and developing more racially inclusive environments.

It’s important to view our recommendations in the wider policy context. For the first time, the regulator for higher education providers in England, the Office for Students, has set clear and ambitious targets for institutions to close the attainment gap, under the direction of Chris Millward, the Director for Fair Access and Participation. In addition to that, the recently launched Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (a new independent charity set up by a consortium between King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University and the Behavioural Insights Team) promises sector wide sharing of best practice across all areas of widening participation. The Race Equality Charter Mark, run by Advance HE, continues to gain members. Even the government have profiled the issue of racial disparities in outcomes as part of the Race Disparity Audit, coordinated by the Cabinet Office. All eyes are now on the outcomes of this work.

Plans that make a difference

The report covers key themes for action: the need for strong leadership, having conversations about race, developing racially diverse and inclusive environments, getting the right (quantitative and qualitative) data, and sharing what works across the sector. It is clear that institutions will need to translate these broad themes into bespoke action plans for their unique institutional contexts. Publicly available action plans, endorsed at the highest institutional levels setting out the clear process for evaluation and accountability, will give BME students and staff confidence that institutions are taking the matter seriously.

For institutions this can present a serious challenge, especially when considering the diversity of their staff. Whilst the diversity of the student body varies from institution to institution, with some institutions such as Aston University and University of West London having a majority of students from BME backgrounds, there are few cases where this is reflected proportionally in the diversity of staff. According to HESA data, only 16% of academic staff are BME which drops to 10% for professors. Tackling the BME attainment gap cannot be isolated to one part of the university; it requires a root and branch review of the entire student experience through a race lens, which is hugely challenging if the staff undertaking the review do not share the lived experience of BME students.

The BME talent pipeline

Clearly, the challenge in the long term is to improve the pipeline of BME students into academia. Whilst this is not touched on in great depth in the report, there is clearly a gap for investing in access to academia for BME students and tackling the barriers which may be preventing them from progressing. In the short term, when developing strategies to tackle the attainment gap, institutions must be ambitious but sensitive to the needs and sensitivities of BME staff and students in the process.

It is clear that without the issues and concerns of BME staff and students considered thoroughly, any change is unlikely to succeed. However, if not done sensitively, universities may inadvertently place the burden on BME staff and students to “solve the problem”, a risk with the vast university governance and bureaucracies which will need reviewing with any system wide change.

Being open about power

Universities should recognise and be open about the power imbalance that exists for BME staff and ensure that no complaints, sharing of experiences or suggestions for change compromise their employment and progression.. They are likely to be in a minority within their institution, and the temptation, in good faith, would be for them to “represent” BME voices on as many committees and working groups as possible. However, this is often done without an assessment of the impact that this may have on their existing work and academic commitments.

Any extra work that BME staff take on, whether that is supporting the university or its students, should be factored into their work plans. BME staff should of course be remunerated accordingly for this additional work. Universities should work with students’ unions to ensure that there is adequate support for BME students when engaging with the university’s efforts to tackle these issues.

If a plan requires significant amount of students’ time, effort and expertise, measures must be taken to ensure that students aren’t disadvantaged or put off from engaging and, where possible, remunerated accordingly. Kingston University for example, pays students as “curriculum consultants,” enabling curricula review to take place whilst remunerating the students appropriately.

If universities approach these issues with the ambition and rigour often displayed in their pursuit of knowledge, high quality research and teaching excellence, then they could start to lead the wider public sector in dismantling racial inequalities across society. Centring the BME staff and student voice without requiring them to take on the burden for “solving the issues” is a necessary but perfectly feasible balance to strike.

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