The black awarding gap is at a record high

I thought it was worth taking a very quick look at ethnicity awarding gaps in the new HESA student data this morning.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I’m looking here at UK domiciled first degree qualifiers by classification of first degree and ethnicity marker. The “gap” I’m looking at is to look at the percentage of students getting a particular result and then comparing that to the percentage of white students getting that result.

First the good news. On “good honours” (ie getting a first or a 2:1) the gap between white and BAME has fallen to 8.8 percentage points, down from 10.6 in 19-20 and 12.7 in 18-19.

Of course that BAME figure hides some stark differences – but on the face of it the graphs are going in the right direction. On black students for example the 20-21 gap is 16.5pp, down from 17.9pp in 19-20 and 20.7 in 18-19.

The Asian gap is also now falling fairly fast – it was 11.1pp in 18-19, then fell to 9.2pp in 19-20 and for 20-21 stands at 6.8pp.

These are still unacceptable gaps, but the gaps are narrowing now much more quickly than we’ve seen previously. Between 14-15 and 18-19 the BAME gap only reduced by 1.4pp, but it’s fallen by 4pp since 18-19. Similarly the gap for black students specifically only fell by 2.3pp in those first four years – it’s fallen by 4pp since.

There will be various theories as to why – some will put this down to their longer term strategies on race, others might argue that it’s been “no detriment” policies and safety nets, others could point to assessment methods changing during the pandemic.

But I’m afraid there’s a problem.

If everyone was doing better, that could end up looking like a narrowing of the gap because more non-white students would be meeting the “good honours” threshold having been previously hovering below it.

HESA obviously doesn’t publish marking transcripts, but we do see firsts. So what happens if we only look at the firsts awarding gap? Is there a narrowing there too – or is it the case that as more non-white students have been getting a 2:1, more white students have been getting a first?

Bad news.

For BAME overall, a 9.9pp awarding gap in 18-19 actually rose to 10.3pp in 19-20 and has now fallen back to 9.3pp for 20-21 – a much more modest set of changes.

But for black students, the gap now stands at 18.2pp – that’s up from 17.9pp in 19-20 and 16pp in 18-19 (it was just 13.7pp in 14-15). The black awarding gap, in other words, is now at an all time high.

Let’s be clear – that’s not black students doing worse. In 14-15, 9.4 percent got a first, and that’s now 19.4 percent in 20-21. But if the sector uses “we’ve improved teaching and support” as its justification for grade inflation, I’m afraid that that improved teaching and support has benefitted white students much more than it has black – because white students have gone from 23.1 percent getting a first to 37.6 percent.

As such it’s increasingly important that regulators now keep tabs on both firsts and 2:1s to track “progress”. And given the number of studies I’ve seen looking at local awarding gaps that could be hiding a similar problem, it’s the first question you should ask within your provider too.

Leave a Reply