We cannot let Covid-19 derail progress on closing the BAME attainment gap

One year on from the Closing the Gap report, Amatey Doku reflects on progress - and the mountain yet to be climbed.

A year has flown by since the publication of the NUS and Universities UK #ClosingTheGap report into the BAME attainment gap, bringing months of consultations across the UK to a close.

I continue to be encouraged by the support Baroness Amos and I received from students and senior leaders alike as we brought the sector together to tackle the stark inequalities in outcomes for BAME students. It is far too soon to see a shift in the overall statistics, but for many institutions, tackling the attainment or “awarding” gap is now firmly on the agenda.

One year on, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the continued salience of the report’s recommendations and reflect on how the disruption caused by Covid19 provides an opportunity for institutions to take the fundamental change required to tackle these racial inequalities.

A recap

The comprehensive and wide-ranging report was accompanied by a bank of case studies, and set out five key themes providing an essential roadmap for change which still apply today.

“Having conversations around race and culture” and “developing racially diverse and inclusive environments” spoke to the need for universities to increase their understanding of race and recruit a more diverse workforce.

The themes of “evidence and data” and “what works”, highlighted the importance of disaggregating the unwieldy categories of “BME/BAME”, while also looking at how the sector can work together to share best practice.

And finally, the key theme of “strong leadership” highlighted the need for institutional leaders to drive forward this agenda from the very top. All recommendations sought to address the lack of sense of belonging which many BAME student face in our universities and prevent them from reaching their full academic potential.

The report was published at a time when a range of initiatives, campaigns and regulatory tools were being used to galvanise the sector to prioritise this agenda. Many students’ unions and student groups were running “why is my curriculum white?” campaigns to decolonise the curriculum whilst the Office for Students was resetting regulation in this space, requiring institutional targets to be included in the new Access and Participation Plans.

Our report was able to build on and enhance this collective sector wide effort, sending a clear signal that partnership between staff and students was essential. While it will take some years for the headline statistics to shift, anecdotally, I know that students, academics and senior university staff have used the report and the case studies within their institutions as a catalyst for change.

Could Covid-19 derail progress?

For many who passionately support efforts to close the BAME attainment gap, there will be grave concerns that Covid-19 will set back progress, but the sector should not lose sight of the window of opportunity to make fundamental change this period of time affords.

With the disruption to education and students being asked to rapidly adapt to studying online, there will, quite rightly, be concerns that the pandemic will exacerbate existing inequalities for BME students, given that many face socioeconomic barriers outside the university. Digital poverty and lack of access to quiet study space run the risk of significantly disrupting their educational experience even further. Additionally, many of the initiatives and projects set up to tackle the attainment gap run the risk of being halted or suspended as the university focuses on “core” activities.

However, and perhaps counterintuitively, both points make it clear why there has not been a better time to tackle this agenda.

Universities which have started to see progress in closing that gap have prioritised creating an inclusive student experience for all students as a core part of their institutional strategy rather than relying on add-on or disjointed initiatives which are at risk of being turned off during a crisis. In doing so, those institutions realise that fundamental change is required right across the institutions from estates, to student support, learning and teaching, and HR and recruitment processes.

By driving a coach and horses through “business as usual” the disruption caused by Covid-19 has forced universities to adapt faster than ever before, challenging existing orthodoxies right across their institutions. Leaders should find an institution far more receptive to fundamental change and should seize this opportunity to signal an institution-wide approach to tackling the disparities in outcomes.

A question of resource

This is not a simple task, and university leaders will legitimately question where the resource for this additional work would come from at a time when staff are furloughed and institutional income streams look fragile. However, in service design, focusing on the experiences of those who have the most challenging experience is the most effective way of identifying issues that, when fixed, will improve the experience for all.

BAME students will likely find the new learning environment the most challenging and institutions would be wise to focus on their experiences as a starting point. As I’ve written elsewhere, it is vital that this is done sensitively, compensating students for any resource committed to working to help universities understand the lived experiences of BAME students, and taking care to avoid creating additional burdens which would disadvantage them further.

The sector has taken great strides over the last few years to tackle the BAME attainment gap. The current disruption should not be seen as an excuse to halt this progress but taken as an opportunity to double down on the fundamental change required to make sure our universities are accessible for all.

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