As the higher education sector struggles to keep afloat and faces big questions about its financial future, the equalities agendas must not slip down the priority list.
We already know that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students experience differential outcomes in admissions, attainment and employment following graduation.
Covid-19 will likely exacerbate these disparities for a generation of BAME students at pivotal stages of their educational journeys. The sector must consider the whole student lifecycle when planning and strategizing through this crisis.
Getting a foot in the door
Since the decision was made to close schools and cancel summer exams, there has been significant concern that ongoing racial inequalities in education will have serious knock-on effects for those seeking to enter higher education. All students are unable to sit their exams and will instead have to rely on “calculated” grades which will factor in teacher-assessments.
Despite Ofqual’s promise of a fair and measured process to carry out their assessments, just one in six predicted A level results turn out to be correct and there is a wealth of evidence that shows poorer and BAME students have their grades routinely under-predicted.
BAME students are more likely to be from widening participation backgrounds than their white counterparts. Given that in normal circumstances, students from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to get the grades needed to go to higher-tariff providers and BAME students have lower offer rates at Russell Group institutions even when equally qualified to white students, this new system for awarding A level results will likely exacerbate unequal access to the most prestigious universities in the UK.
Evidence shows that while there has been a 60 per cent increase in UK BAME students entering HE since 2003-04, they are over-represented at newer post-1992 universities and the gap in attainment of a “good degree” between them and white students is 13.4 percentage points.
Employing a more extensive and widespread contextual admissions process is one way that universities can mitigate some of these racial disparities in admissions. My research on race and widening participation is part of a larger ESRC-funded programme of research being undertaken at the Centre for Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) at the University of Manchester.
As part of the research I have seen how university access programmes which offer reductions on entry requirements for applicants from WP backgrounds, can reduce differences in offer-making to prospective students from different socio-economic backgrounds.
During these unprecedented times, universities should act boldly and collaboratively to adapt their entry requirements on a much larger scale. Evidence shows that this move is not as high-risk as one might think. Statistical modelling by academics at Durham indicates that the probability of success for students coming to university with lower A-level results are not so different from those who enter with higher grades. For example, while A level students entering higher-tariff institutions with AAB were shown to have an 88 per cent chance of graduating three years later, the probability of those entering with BCC was not much lower, at 80 per cent.
Learning in lockdown
For those students who do manage to get through the unpredictable process of admissions and start university in September, what might they expect?
Evidence shows how important the experience of those initial weeks at university are for student retention rates. BAME students are already more likely to drop out than their white counterparts. The rate for Black students is 1.5 times higher than that of Asian and White students. This is partly because BAME students tend to lack a sense of belonging in the university environment.
Welcome weeks are typically a time to meet friends and get acquainted but with many campuses likely to be shut (or at least half open) in September with the shift to online learning, the start of term could prove to be a very alienating time for students.
As universities are struggling to decide which services are expendable to save money in their budgets, pastoral services that support student wellbeing and mental health must be sustained. Given that Covid-19 disproportionately impacts BAME populations, we cannot afford to underestimate the level of anxiety BAME students will likely be experiencing at this moment in time.
It is for universities to take responsibility for new incoming students and the returnees who, by September, will have been (attempting) to work off campus for over six months. For commuter students, who are most likely to come from BAME backgrounds, the university campus is an especially invaluable resource. They are more likely to have caring responsibilities at home and are less likely to be set up with the resources needed to facilitate online learning and so the university library, or the café on campus, is where work is compiled and completed.
If this way of working is our new norm, universities should think about how they can ramp up their digital support and IT services for these students. Beyond that, it is for the UK government to support the sector in providing actual digital devices to those most in need, as the Department for Education has done for school and college students.
The attainment gaps between white and BAME students should not widen for this generation of students. This is a moment for universities to show they are a public good, and a part of their remit is to support their most vulnerable students to achieve their full potential.
Where to next?
For those students unlucky enough to be in their final year, the job market has almost disappeared overnight. Very early on in the crisis graduate employers reneged on job offers and internships, careers fairs were cancelled, and the future suddenly seems quite bleak for all students.
The sector should see this as an opportunity to change the way things are usually done. We know that there is a broken pipeline which means that BAME students do not progress onto postgraduate courses, especially PhDs, so they are not becoming academic staff. If employment prospects are seeming particularly stark, universities could use this as an opportunity to support their BAME students into postgraduate study and doctoral research, emphasising WP across the student pipeline.
It is becoming clearer as each day passes that things will not simply return to normal following this crisis and there is a danger of more elite universities using the moment to roll back on progress around inclusivity as finances become constrained.
We must be alert to how this can create conditions which promote a two-tier higher education system, with more selective universities ever more so becoming the reserve of the elite. This is an opportunity to act radically where we can and rethink how we do things as we emerge into a transformed society, and a new normal.