Time’s up for the awarding gap

At the current rate of change it will take another 66 years to close the awarding gap for black students. Gary Loke hopes it won't take that long.

When I joined Equality Challenge Unit (now Advance HE) in 2008, the first project I worked on was ethnicity and gender undergraduate attainment gaps, and what the follow up response should be to our first sector report on the issue.

Looking back at that report as we launch our Advance HE 2020 equality in higher education statistical report makes me pause and ponder what has changed and what hasn’t, and reflect on where we are in the journey in addressing awarding gaps.

One thing that has changed is our use of the word “attainment”. In our 2020 equality in higher education statistical report we use the word “awarding” in recognition of the multiplicity of factors that contribute to student success, and how institutional structures and discrimination can affect this.

Sadly, what continues to hold true is the persistent ethnicity awarding gap in higher education, and the continued statistical unexplained nature of the gap – ie. that even after controlling for other factors, ethnicity still impacts on what awards graduates will receive.

Similarly, what hasn’t changed this year is the overall awarding gap between UK-domicile undergraduate white and BAME students. The gap has remained relatively static at 13.2 percentage points in 2017-18 and 13.3 percentage points in 2018-19.

What also continues to persist is the wide difference of awarding gap by different ethnic groups, with the gap being most pronounced for qualifiers from a Black African (23.3 percentage points), Black Caribbean (19.2 percentage points) and other Black backgrounds (24.4 percentage points) compared to white qualifiers. The degree awarding gap was much narrower for Chinese (4.4 percentage points), mixed (4.8 percentage points) and Asian Indian qualifiers (4.8 percentage points).

Non-reducible

When I look back at that first sector report in 2008, many of the findings from that report still hold true, such as recognising that the causes of the awarding gap “cannot be reducible to single, knowable factors.”

When we take an intersectional look at the ethnicity awarding gap, it widens with age. There was an 18.1 percentage point difference in the proportion of UK white and BAME qualifiers aged 36 and over, more than double the difference among those aged 21 and under (7.6 percentage points).

The degree awarding gap was most pronounced between Black male qualifiers (of whom 54.5 per cent received a first/2:1) and white female qualifiers (82.9 per cent, a difference of 28.4 percentage points).

We also for the first time present new data on awarding gaps by religion and belief. In 2018/19, 86.6 per cent of Jewish students (86.8 per cent), and 79.8 per cent of students who reported no religion or belief were awarded a first/2:1 degree. In contrast, fewer than two thirds (64.4 per cent) of Muslim students received a first/2:1.

Of course there is some overlap of ethnicity and religion, but we do know that one’s religious identity impacts on sense of belonging and student success. The many data points really make me reflect on the need to not be reductionist and to consider the multitude of factors that impact on degree awarding. This includes of course consideration of socioeconomic status. The sector knows well that entry qualifications and socioeconomic status interplay here too, but also that when controlled for these, we’re still faced with persistent gaps.

At a sector level, progress on narrowing the ethnicity gap continues to be slow. The white-BAME gap and the white-Black gap have each on average changed by 0.3 percentage points between 2003-04 and 2018-19. At this rate of change it will be in 2070-71 when the white-BAME awarding gap will close, and 2085-86 when the white-Black awarding gap closes. This is rather depressing.

Making progress

It is of course heartening to see more action on addressing equality gaps and structural racism, and the call by many for decolonising the curriculum as an urgent systemic reckoning with the legacies and norms of institutions – an issue linked, and certainly wider than awarding gaps; narrowing awarding gaps within this manifestation of structural (and personal) inequality in society, especially in the wider education system.

Structural inequality means that bias starts before the higher education journey and discrimination is engrained. In 2018, for example, the Independent reported that Black people were 21 times more likely to have their university application investigated for suspected false or misleading information as compared to white peers.

Working with universities on various projects, I continue to hear comments about the supposed deficit of BAME people – comments such as “BAME students come to university with BTECs and therefore without the wherewithal needed to succeed at university.”

I continue to hear stories about microaggressions, such as constantly being mistaken for someone else of the same ethnicity, and everyday racism that takes its toll on people of colour, and corrodes the sense of belonging.

It is of course very easy to think “well that isn’t me – I don’t think that, or I don’t behave in that way.” But navigating racism is not a binary good or evil approach. If we really want to address the issue of degree awarding gaps, we all have our part to play in being an anti-racist.

We all need to continue to have challenging conversations about race and racism, and how it impacts on the awarding gap. It’s crucial to listen and centre the experience of people of colour, but not overburden us or make us relive trauma.

We all need to take sustainable action in different ways to address both personal and structural inequality. Taking personal action can range from being an active bystander and calling out racism when you see it, or educating yourself more about the race and racism and work on becoming an effective ally, and becoming an anti-racist.

Structural barriers

Personal action is great; it is however, insufficient. Crucially, to address the awarding gap, we need to address the structural barriers in long-term strategic thinking. By this I mean working across the institution to consider what changes are needed in governance, leadership, teaching and learning practice, student support, and the diversity of staff, which recognise the problem of the awarding gap and puts in place actions to dismantle structural inequality and decolonising higher education.

2020 has been a tumultuous year and certainly very unlike 2008 when I first started looking at work around awarding gaps. The impact of Black Lives Matters and the call for more honest and open conversations about race should have forced us to be more ambitious about change.

Yet the strain of Covid-19 presents real risks to equality and opening up new equality gaps. A first degree award is the end point for those who stay in the higher education system, and narrowing the awarding gap needs to be situated in issues of student retention and success, belonging and building a truly diverse and inclusive academy.

A policy, sector or institutional approach that is metrics driven in isolation makes for shallow ground for long-term change.

4 responses to “Time’s up for the awarding gap

  1. Great article though the message is rather depressing. The reality is that BAME attainment/awarding of a ‘good degree’ has improved since 2008 but because the white category has also improved the gap remains.
    I happen to think the whole idea of degree clarification is designed to create and Ma it’s in differentials and so we will never close the gap. Indeed, I am sure if it was closed then because of the deep rooted elitist mindsets, some other proxy, perhaps linked to instituting will be used to differentiate.
    And so the only solution must be to get rid of degree classification and develop new ways of capturing student learning and achievement.
    If PhD’s are not subject to classification then why under graduate degree?

  2. I believe it is possible to reduce degree awarding gap or close the attainment gap depending on your language, but it would require looking at the preparation of students by ethnicity for their assessments and final exams. The system, in my point of view, likes to blame the student first rather than seeking to change the support currently offered within universities. Do not change the way it is measured (outcome), instead how students can prepare!

  3. Interesting article. Also, interesting point from Gurnam. To add to this, I do not think classifications are used in medicine – just across other undergraduate courses – unsure why. Removing classification would be a structural response that would dramatically change the current patterns – but such a radical change needs serious political buy in (?).

    Good to see more detail on more defined student ethnic groups in the current report – but think this could be expanded further. Essentially, if a table / chart includes statistical details for Chinese students (one of the smallest defined student ethnic groups), it should also show detail for Black African, Black Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students (all larger in size to Chinese students).

    The focus on the ‘good degree’ measure hides some interesting detail – it seems that ethnic differences at 2.1 diminished over the last decade; at the same time, differences at first class remained static or widened. In other words, in the UK, white advantage in degree attainment is being maintained primarily by first class degrees. Also worth noting that % first class degrees have increased notably since the introduction of £9K/year fees.

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