Something is going very wrong with the awarding gap for first class degrees

The gap between the proportion of white and black undergraduates achieving a first has grown again. David Kernohan gets across the latest set of OfS access and participation data

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

The gap between the proportion of black undergraduate qualifiers and the proportion of white qualifiers in England achieving a first class degree has been widening since the start of the decade.

New data released by the Office for Students shows that it has widened again, to a gap of nearly 20 percentage points (up from 11.5 percentage points in 2010-11.

What’s going on?

As the headline OfS performance measure on attainment differentials measure looks at a combination of first class and upper second class attainment, it is possible to see an overall improvement in the racial equality of “good” degrees awarded as a continuation of a long term trend.

However, an elimination of the attainment gap for upper second class degrees, and a growing number of students getting upper second class degrees, has concealed what is happening with first class degrees. Indeed, in the last two years the gap has reversed – in 2020-21 the gap was 2.4 percentage points in favour of black qualifiers.

The commentary by the Office for Students hints that changes made to assessments may be at the route of the substantial improvement in the awarding gap for “good” degrees (first or 2:1), but it is not clear why the underlying trend for first class degrees has continued to move in the other direction.

Key performance

We learn this from a set of OfS Key Performance Measures (KPMs) updated alongside the release of the latest iteration of the Access and Participation Dashboard, incorporating HESA data on students for 2020-21. Elsewhere, we note that the non-continuation rate for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds fell by nearly two percentage points last year, and a continued closing of the (POLAR) disadvantage participation gap for all providers and high tariff providers.

Although the English regulator was recently criticised for not setting either measures or targets for many KPMs by the National Audit Office, these releases do allow us to take an overview of sector performance on key equality measures – and as OfS finalises more measures the KPMs will become invaluable in understanding the direction and proportion of changes as John Blake’s priorities for access and participation take hold.

What we don’t see from these KPMs is performance at provider level – for that we plunge into the access and participation dashboard itself.

By provider, in depth

There’s been a whole pandemic since we last had a proper look at access and participation data from the OfS on Wonkhe.

What we’ve tried to do this year – as before – is to look across the sector to see the ways that students at each provider have experienced these difficult last years. The OfS dashboard doesn’t let us do that in the same way, so we’ve had to bend the data a long way from the way it was designed to let us see it – with a consequent ugliness to today’s data visualisations that we can only apologise for. There is an unfortunate fashion for providers of official statistics to release data that underpins dashboards rather than usable raw data – think of these charts as the inevitable conclusion of this trend.

Please note, for instance, that not all filter options are available for all lifecycle stages. If you get a blank screen, please choose something different!

Access

This visualisation shows the proportion of a provider’s undergraduate intake each year that has a particular characteristic. You can choose the type of characteristic and the precise characteristic within that using the filters at the top – here you can also choose the academic year you are interested in (by default the most recent available is selected). On the bottom you can change the population you are interested in in terms of mode and level of study, and find a particular provider of interest using the highlighter.

Of larger providers Sunderland University does the best at recruiting students aged 51 or over – 6.5 per cent of its 2020-21 intake was from that age group. There are a lot of private providers and FE colleges that do better than that, however – the proportion is 42 per cent at the London School of Academics. In contrast, undergraduate entrants at Imperial College London form the overwhelming majority – 99.2 per cent of those starting a course there are under 21.

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Continuation

This visualisation shows the percentage point gap between the continuation rates (the proportion of students progressing to year two 12 months – or the part time equivalent – on) of two characteristic groups at each provider for a given year. You can choose the type of characteristic and the precise characteristics you wish to compare within that using the filters at the top – here you can also choose the academic year you are interested in (by default the most recent available is selected). On the bottom you can change the population you are interested in in terms of mode and level of study, and find a particular provider of interest using the highlighter. The “gap” refers to the difference between rates for the first and second group listed.

The University of Bedfordshire, Plymouth Marjon University, and University College Birmingham are among those with a gap of five percentage points or more between the progression rates of students who do and do not report disabilities in the last academic year. Here, the sector average is a gap of 1.2 percentage points in favour of students that report disabilities.

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Attainment

This visualisation shows the percentage point gap between the attainment rates (the proportion attaining a 2:1 or above at a level 6 – or above – qualification) of two characteristic groups at each provider for a given year. You can choose the type of characteristic and the precise characteristics you wish to compare within that using the filters at the top – here you can also choose the academic year you are interested in (by default the most recent available is selected). On the bottom you can change the population you are interested in in terms of mode and level of study, and find a particular provider of interest using the highlighter. The “gap” refers to the difference between rates for the first and second group listed.

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The percentage point gap between the attainment of a first class or 2:1 degree of white disadvantaged (IMD Q1 and Q2) qualifiers and their Black peers from similar backgrounds was 25 percentage points at Canterbury Christchurch University and the Arts University Bournemouth – the highest among larger providers in the sector, though in both cases this is an improvement on the previous year.

Progression

This visualisation shows the percentage point gap between the progression rates (the proportion going on to highly skilled employment or higher-levels study after qualifying) of two characteristic groups at each provider for a given year. You can choose the type of characteristic and the precise characteristics you wish to compare within that using the filters at the top – here you can also choose the academic year you are interested in (by default the most recent available is selected). On the bottom you can change the population you are interested in in terms of mode and level of study, and find a particular provider of interest using the highlighter. The “gap” refers to the difference between rates for the first and second group listed.

Female graduates do better than male graduates at Buckinghamshire New University. Last year saw an 11 per cent gap in favour of women entering a high-skilled job or further study. Canterbury Christ Church, Edge Hill, and Brighton are among the other larger providers that do particularly well at seeing women progress to a good graduate outcome.

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3 responses to “Something is going very wrong with the awarding gap for first class degrees

  1. Hi David, thanks for the analysis – really helpful tools as always. Do you mind if I raise that I think this sentence is a bit misleading: “The University of Bedfordshire, Plymouth Marjon University, and University College Birmingham are among those with a gap of five percentage points or more between the progression rates of students who do and do not report disabilities in the last academic year.” It could be read either way but it doesn’t make clear that the gap is a negative gap (ie a positive for disabled students) and in each, disabled students have higher continuation rates than students who do not declare a disability. Thank you.

  2. IF, big if I know, on-line assessments are truly colour/gender/disability/whatever blind, then the only conclusion I can reach is that ‘positive’ discrimination in previous years skewed the awarding results. Having sat through Graduation ceremonies and listened to the comments when someone described and a lazy non-attender got not just a First but an extra award by their fellow students, confirmed by their Supervisor later as correct, I have little doubt discrimination and ‘tokenism’ is a major and continuing problem in many Universities.

  3. I don’t suspect level of anonymity has changed a great deal, many of those assessments that are anonymous now were so before. And I don’t suspect people are giving out affirmative action awards to lazy students (if that’s what you mean?), I think excellent students are misread as lazy because of racism.

    Often you need access to wider resources (one-on-one supervision, recommendations for new readings, equipment) to get a first, to demonstrate independent research. So I wonder if plenty of students might be getting better results on their courses in general, but be being blocked from accessing those wider resources even more than before.

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