Universities UK (UUK) and National Union of Students (NUS) report on closing the black, Asian and minority ethnic attainment gap at UK universities.

UK universities must demonstrate their commitment to university-wide change as they seek to eliminate the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) student attainment gap in UK higher education, concludes a new report by Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS).

Led by Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS, and Amatey Doku, Vice President for Higher Education at the NUS, UUK and the NUS have been working with universities and students since June 2018 to tackle the disparity between the proportion of ‘top degrees’ (first or a 2:1 degree) achieved by white and BAME students.

Today’s publication of the report - Black, Asian and minority ethnic student attainment at UK universities: #ClosingtheGap - follows contributions from 99 universities and student unions and six regional roundtable evidence sessions with 160 attendees on how the attainment gap should be tackled.

These five steps for universities to improve BAME student outcomes have been identified:

  1. Providing strong leadership: University leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example. UUK and NUS have created a checklist for university leaders to draw upon when considering how to address their institution’s attainment gap.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing cultures: Universities and students need to create more opportunities to talk directly about race, racism and the attainment gap and identify what students think is causing it. A change in culture is needed alongside a clear institutional message that issues of race will be dealt with as part of wider, strategic, organisational practice. Not as an ‘add on’.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments: University leadership teams are not representative of the student body and some curriculums do not reflect minority groups’ experiences. A greater focus is needed from universities, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, while institutions need an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement, including with curriculums, and progression to postgraduate study, embedding best practice.
  4. Getting the evidence and analysing the data on the attainment gap: Universities need to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap – gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than they may currently be doing, to inform discussions between university leaders, academics and students.
  5. Understanding what works: Universities can collectively work to address gaps in the evidence base by using applied research to ensure evidence on 'what works' is high quality, and share evidence of what works and what doesn't. As a first step, UUK is creating a case study library.

Professor Binna Kandola, author of ‘Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference’ and senior partner at Pearn Kandola, said:

“The term “modern racism” has only come to the fore in recent years. As actions that we would now class as “old-fashioned racism” have become less acceptable in wider society, racism has evolved to become more subtle, though no less damaging. In the workplace, for example, it can take the form of BAME people struggling to earn the same roles, responsibilities and recognition as white people. There may be no physical or verbal abuse, but the fact remains that BAME people are discriminated against on account of their race.

“One of the most deeply entrenched examples of modern racism in universities is the black attainment gap; whereby a disproportionate number of black students graduate with worse degrees than their white classmates.

“There’s also a double standard that dictates how many BAME people actually win a place at a university. In the UK, BAME people are 50% more likely to go to university than their white peers. This sounds very positive, until you realise they are less likely to attend the more prestigious universities. Some research has even found that minorities need to get better results than white students to obtain places at the most prestigious institutions.

“There’s evidence to suggest that minority groups must also pay more for the same education opportunities as their majority peers. In the UK, university candidates of Indian heritage are two-and-a-half times more likely to come from fee-paying schools than white candidates, while Chinese candidates are five times more likely. This is despite the average income of minority parents being lower than that of white parents.

“A university is a place of knowledge, acceptance and new ideas; setting an example for the wider world. This is something that they must be reminded of, and the presence of modern racism is something that has to be tackled diligently.”

Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS, said:

“Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap.

“While many universities are proactive on the issue, this report and its recommendations aims to deliver transformation in our sector. It is important that universities act and are transparent in their approach so black, Asian and minority ethnic students are given the best chance of success. Inaction is not an option. Universities should be places where opportunity and aspiration come together.”

Amatey Doku, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), said:

“Universities have presided over significant gaps in attainment between BME students and white students for far too long and I’m delighted that the sector has come together to chart a way forward with this timely report.

“From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years and this report highlights good practice, and clear practical steps for universities to take to begin to respond to many of the concerns raised.

“This report must be taken seriously by all senior leaders in the higher education sector and I look forward to seeing proactive steps taken to eradicate these unjust gaps in attainment once and for all.”

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, said:

"This is an important, welcome and timely report, and universities and other higher education providers should act on its recommendations. Higher education provides life-changing benefits, but we know that stubborn gaps in attainment between certain ethnic groups are stopping some students from fulfilling their true potential. In particular, black students are much less likely to complete their studies, secure a first or upper second-class degree, or find graduate-level employment than their white peers. This is not right, and it must change.

''The Office for Students has set a target for the higher education sector to eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes between white and black students by 2024-25. In order to do this, universities must take urgent action to understand what is causing these differences, and reduce the gaps so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the rewards that higher education can bring."

damian hinds100x100Education Secretary Damian Hinds said:

“We have introduced reforms to make sure that higher education is open to everyone who has the talent and potential – and there is a record rate of disadvantaged 18-year-olds going to university, but whilst we have made huge strides on access we now need to make sure that students are successfully participating in and completing their studies.

“Through the new regulator we are asking every university to draw up an access and participation plan for 2020-21 and I expect every institution to ask themselves what they can do to drive forward progress in improving both access and successful participation for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds.

“Alongside this work from the sector, the government is also working to tackle the large gaps that still remain through the Race Disparity Unit, which is working to improve outcomes for ethnic minority students in higher education, including by making better information available and gathering evidence on what works to improve access and attainment for ethnic minority students.”

While it is accepted that university leaders, staff and student unions have worked together in recent years to reduce the attainment gap – including training sessions on understanding structural inequality, employing BAME student advocates and ‘role model workshops’ with BAME alumni guest speakers – there is more universities can do.

While there was an increase of more than 50% in the number of BAME full-time undergraduates in the UK between 2007 and 2017, 71% of Asian students who graduated in 2017 achieved a first or a 2:1, and just 57% of black students compared to 81% of white students. Data shows that qualifications before attending university, although a key factor in degree outcomes, do not explain the differences between ethnic groups.

Universities UK is asking vice-chancellors and principals to sign up to an online pledge to work with students and use the report’s recommendations within their institutions. Progress made by the sector will be evaluated in 2020.

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