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What more can be done to improve outcomes for black British students?

Universities take the issue of black student attainment very seriously. Kate Kettle introduces us to a range of initiatives underway at King's College London.
This article is more than 6 years old

Kate Kettle is Deputy Director of Widening Participation at King’s College London, and leads on the department’s BME Strategy.

Last month Wonkhe published analysis evidencing the gap in university attainment between black students and their white, Asian and other ethnic minority peers. Despite a backdrop of improvement in the diversification of our universities, the national picture for black British students remains inequitable.

Back in April 2015, David Cameron addressed a campaign rally in Croydon, at which he outlined a new target for BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) participation:

“In the next five years, I want us to go further, with an ambition for 20 per cent more students from diverse backgrounds in university.”

The Government’s ‘BME 2020’ vision, as it became known, set a new standard for universities; but with a redoubled emphasis on the recruitment of white working class boys in the succeeding two years, Cameron’s vision for black British students appears to have been dropped in all but name.

To improve outcomes for black British students, as with all underrepresented groups, universities must intervene at several stages along the student journey. At King’s College London, we take a full lifecycle approach to student success – supporting disadvantaged learners getting in, getting on and getting up. Under this framework, providers must be prepared to nuance their approach further – tailoring interventions to specific sub-groups we know to be at risk.

‘BME 2020’ aside, we need a renewed focus on the recruitment, retention and success of black British students in our universities. So what can be done?

Dissagregate black from BME

When David Cameron grouped black, Asian and ethnic minority communities together under the category BME, he fell into the same trap many well-meaning institutions do when discussing racial equality – using the success of one group to mask the underrepresentation of another.

By evaluating the outcomes of black students under the umbrella term BME, we mask the fact that this group is particularly disadvantaged in our education system at all levels. We must examine more closely the specific performance of black students against their white or Asian and ethnic minority peers. Through our BME Student Success Project, King’s is making strides to analyse and reduce the gap in finals’ attainment by 2% annually – hardwiring both an institutional KPI and an OFFA Target to that effect. However more must be done earlier in the student lifecycle to mitigate these challenges.   

Since 2012, King’s has run a highly successful widening participation programme called K+. By 2016, whilst 75% of participating students were classified as from an ethnic minority group, only 1% were Black-Caribbean, despite the London Census putting the population at 4.2% back in 2011.

In order to redress this imbalance, we have partnered with The Champion Agency, based in Brixton, to increase the representation of black Londoners on our programme. Together we have designed a recruitment campaign using targeted posters in neighbourhoods with high density black communities; and paired this with a social media campaign to directly approach those learners we most wish to engage. The 2017 K+ campaign launches this week. To find out more, visit or @KCLWP #kpluslondon.

Disaggregating ethnicity from the BME collective is essential if we are to achieve equity of outcomes. Universities should feel empowered to take this step by the Equality Act (2010) guidance which clearly allows:

“education providers to take action to tackle the particular disadvantage, different needs or disproportionately low participation of a particular student group”

Build communities within your institution

The strength of sustained access programmes like K+ lies not purely in the academic content and campus tours, but in the sense of cohort the students build up with one another. Students should not feel they are leaving their community to join an alternative one, but rather that their community is an integral part of the institution they choose. This is easier said than done, as in many universities the population of black students is far lower than it should be. However, there are steps which we can take to elevate and improve cultural cohesion.   

Institutional community building can have significant impact. Following the 2014 establishment of the BME Student Success Project at King’s, focus groups:

“revealed an explicit awareness about the disproportionately low numbers of BME academic and teaching staff across the College and were conscious of their lack of visibility. There was also a majority consensus that the lack of representation of BME academic staff particularly at senior levels impacted who they could look up to as role models or potential mentors.”

In response, we have launched The Open Doors Project, a visual photographic display of current black students and academic staff placed on door panels across our campuses. The aim is to highlight the contributions they are making to university life, and to provide inspirational role models. There is also an accompanying mentoring programme to support student success.

An image from the #BlackMenAtKingsCollegeLondon campaign

Partnering with student societies can be a powerful means of effecting change. The King’s African-Caribbean Society (ACS) have been a great source of information and support alongside organising their own interventions, including their Twitter campaign #BlackMenAtKingsCollegeLondon. For students typically underrepresented at university, the sense of cohort and shared experience is what really makes the difference when they come to apply to and attend university. As James Frater, medical student and President of the ACS explains:

“The biggest myth about being black and going to a top university is…You have to disassociate yourself with your background to assimilate to your environment. The truth is…Things like the ACS have shown me that I can still be myself and still have a place at King’s.”

Develop new ways to support on-course students

We must find more nuanced ways to approach student success; mindful that this subtlety of approach should not be confused as indirect. As a sector, we need to find new, better targeted ways of communicating specific messages to specific students.

Working in partnership with external organisations presents a convenient opportunity for mutual aid. Community groups and not-for-profits have strong links with certain areas and demographics, and extensive understanding of what’s required, and experience of what works well. What they often lack is the secure funding that OFFA agreements have guaranteed to universities. Together, we can address shared challenges.

King’s is ambitious to recruit and retain higher numbers of black African and Caribbean men. To address this, we have partnered with Amos Bursary, and have established a scholarship in their name. They run a programme spanning school, university and beyond, for young black men in London who show leadership potential.

Beyond partnership, the way in which we communicate with students may hold the key to improved students outcomes. In 2015 King’s began working with the Behavioural Insights team within the Cabinet Office, on a two-year pilot. The KCLxBIT project has explored:

“whether behaviourally inspired [text] messages might offer a way of increasing student engagement, with a particular interest in the effect these messages have on widening participation learners.

Our trials have tested both whether receiving a message will increase the likelihood a student will engage with the services, and also whether the type of message received will produce differential outcomes in behaviour for different student groups.”

Results from the KCLxBIT panel survey will be published next month. Implications of research into ‘nudge theory’ are far reaching; and could be particularly useful in shaping diversity and inclusion policy going forwards.

Concluding thoughts

David Cameron was right to make equality of outcome for black students a priority back in 2015. In the intervening years a lot of good work has been done to diversify our institutions, but not enough progress has been made in this important area. Whilst we do not have all the answers, we do have an opportunity to push the boundaries at our universities and trial new approaches to support black students with getting in, getting on and getting up. As the 2020 deadline nears, there is much to be done.

One response to “What more can be done to improve outcomes for black British students?

  1. Hi Kate,

    Great to hear about the innovative work being done at King’s. I completely agree that we need a much more sophisticated approach in order to avoid discerning identity as a homogeneous mass. The biggest issue however for me concerns the ‘sameness’ which permeates many HEIs, especially at Senior Leadership level. (I blogged about this recently on Wonkhe referring to it as ‘zombie leadership’).

    Despite all good intentions and interventions, until that is tackled, HEIs will always seek to reproduce the same socio-cultural relations which confer advantage to privileged groups; hence, very little will change, as indicated in the Social Mobility Commision’s recent critique concerning minimal progress.

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