Higher education institutions are increasingly moving towards personalising learning experiences to help students achieve their full potential.
This is providing opportunities to seek more flexible approaches to student learning: revisiting how we design our curricula, how we enable students to engage in learning in and beyond their disciplines, and how we redefine attendance, engagement, and attainment.
If we are going to transform students’ lives, we need to change how we think. As long as we feel we have to be in control of what, where, and how students learn, we perpetuate a familiar model of HE with pockets of innovation only for some. By collaborating with students to co-construct a learning experience which is engaging and relevant, students become autonomous and develop a sense of who they are as learners and as graduates. Ultimately, they will build the critical thinking skills and graduate attributes required to demonstrate their credibility to employers and make a positive societal contribution.
Attainment and its gaps
The number of students receiving a first class degree or 2:1 has increased sharply over the past decade. But a considerable gap remains between the proportion of white British students achieving first class degrees compared to UK-domiciled students from BME groups.
Data from the former Equality Challenge Unit shows that in 2015-16, the gap was largest in England, where 78.8% of white qualifiers received a first or 2:1, compared with 63.2% of BME qualifiers – a 15.6 percentage point gap. Outcomes vary by ethnic group, with particularly wide gaps observed between white and black students, and disabled and non-disabled students in relation to degree attainment. The Office for Students (OfS) announced in December that it will ask institutions to contribute to eliminating these unexplained equality gaps through future access and participation plan submissions.
In September, Advance HE published the data for 2016-17, which revealed:
- 75.1% of Chinese students were awarded a good honours degree (a degree attainment gap of 4.5 pp)
- 68.7% of Asian students (a gap of 10.9 pp)
- 55.5% of black students (a gap of 24.1 pp)
It is vital that we explore intersectionality as we seek to address these gaps. For example, 52.8% of black male students gained a good honours degree in 2016-17 (a gap of 24.8 pp from white male students) while 28.6% of white students gained a first class degree compared to 12.3% of black students (a gap of 16.3 pp). Students’ chosen subject also affects their chances of attaining a good honours degree. In 2016-17, the BME attainment gap was 11.3% in science, engineering and technology (SET) subjects and 15.4% in non-SET subjects.
So what are the known knowns? The attainment gap for ethnic minority students is only partly explained by differences in entry qualifications; it is greater at post-1992 universities than at Russell Group universities and is greater in part-time students than in full-time students. The gap also varies from one institution to another and from one subject area to another. The gap is narrower for those studying SET subjects. This suggests that gaps may result in part from teaching and assessment practices in different institutions and subjects.
Demographic and course-related variables (especially entry qualifications) explain around half of the attainment gap in ethnic minority students. If we assume entry qualifications are a proxy for academic ability, then about half of the attainment gap is attributable to differences in academic ability. The other half of the gap is not attributable to differences in academic ability. This suggests that ethnic minority students are being awarded poorer degrees for reasons that have nothing to do with their academic ability.
The attainment gap is a finding that is correlational in nature. Ethnicity per se is almost certainly not the effective variable influencing students’ academic attainment. Rather, it is a proxy for other factors that have yet to be identified. Gaps exist not only for BAME students but also for students with disabilities and LGBT+ students.
Across the sector, we recognise that these gaps need to close and be eventually eradicated. The recent challenge to universities is a welcome signal that inequality has prevailed for too long. The University of Derby is working on a number of projects to support success for all our students, but most importantly, we are trying to change practice and embed inclusive pedagogy across all areas to offer the best chances to everyone.
The first step in this is understanding the data and ensuring that it is robust and accessible for all staff. The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework has drawn attention to differential outcomes and has raised awareness of the challenges that we must seek to address.
Embedding the framework
In November, the University of Derby signed a memorandum of understanding with Advance HE, making it the first HE institution in the country to commit to embedding the agency’s best practice student success framework into all its programmes. By adopting the framework, we will create a more consistent and integrated approach to curriculum design, as well as enhancing our digital offer.
We will adopt seven pedagogic principles: authentic (applied) learning; active (co-creation/collaboration); global; innovation; research informed; inclusive and flexible (digital/multi-modal/transdisciplinary). The principles put students at the heart of the learning experience, fostering academic success by improving attainment, developing their skills as independent learners, connecting across disciplines and challenging them to become game changers. We will work with our staff and students to identify best practices and challenge those that hinder student progress. We will also examine policies and processes to ensure these are fit for purpose and work to ensure an inclusive approach to all aspects of learning and teaching across the university.
Becoming an independent learner
Our aim is for students to develop their own unique experience, rather than passively consume a package of learning. In co-creating the content they want within individual modules, and the experiences they want to be part of (based on their interests and what motivates them), students will have ownership of a unique experience. We know that highly motivated students are more likely to be intrinsic learners, become engaged in deep learning and develop meaningful transferrable skills.
At the University of Derby, we set high expectations. Our undergraduate research scholarship scheme is a great example of this. Students take the lead and stretch their interests beyond the formal curriculum through a funded research opportunity, where they design and undertake a piece of empirical research in or related to their discipline. They present their findings at a transdisciplinary research event where they engage in scholarly debate. The success of the scheme demonstrates that with the right level of challenge and academic leadership, students can excel.
Connecting across disciplines, or across academic cohorts, to deliver a specific project can help students develop their employability skills, as it mirrors a real-world approach to work. In our live project with the Museum of Making in Derby, our art and design, engineering and technology and humanities students are designing hoardings and furniture for the building, and actively following the redevelopment process, thereby leaving a personal legacy in the city.
This kind of authentic engagement allows our students to become the game changers – and we are proud of their success. When our students apply for jobs, they can describe their engagement in specific projects provide evidence of the different modes of working they have experienced and articulate their acquisition of the real-world skills needed to succeed in their chosen field. It puts them one step ahead of the competition.
Heart of learning
Our student experience framework asks students to engage with the senior leadership team in many ways, which reflects a genuine partnership. Students are part of validation processes, can have a breakfast meeting with the vice chancellor, are on staff interview panels, and display their leadership skills by co-chairing our academic committees. Our students have a strong voice and we provide the platforms for them to articulate their views at a senior level. We trust them and we value their input. It really does make a meaningful difference.
We are very clear that students are our partners in our shared academic endeavour, not consumers of HE. Opening up new areas of knowledge and understanding, and challenging every student to reflect upon their broader opportunities, engages them positively in making a contribution to cultural and societal issues within the region, the country and globally. Rethinking our approach to higher education will mould the next generation of game-changers, who set their aspirations high and think beyond the obvious.