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Concrete, targeted plans needed to address racial inequality in higher education

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Commitments to reduce racial inequalities in universities and colleges need to be backed up by concrete plans on how to achieve them, according to a new report from TASO

While the report shows a real commitment to addressing the gap, higher education providers need to do more to develop concrete, realistic plans and programmes based on contextual factors – such as institutional student data – to bring about meaningful change. 

The research – which included an analysis of plans submitted to the higher education sector regulator (the Office for Students) and interviews with key stakeholders – reveals that existing approaches often include mechanical discussions of a regulatory target to eliminate the gap by next year (2024/25). Given evidence that this target will be missed, TASO is recommending higher education providers shift focus to develop concrete plans to address the gap that take into account the context of the provider.

Dr Omar Khan, Chief Executive Officer at TASO (Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education):

“Racial inequality persists in classrooms and lecture theatres across the country. Students from marginalised or underrepresented ethnic backgrounds, particularly Black students, remain less likely to receive the same grades as their White peers at university, impacting not just their student experience, but also their future job prospects and income.

“While universities have been focusing much recent effort on tackling these gaps, existing approaches don’t appear to have benefited the ethnic minority students affected. I call on everyone working in this area to reflect on the findings in this new report and develop concrete plans with clear links between your proposed activities and desired outcomes to more effectively close the longstanding and persistent ethnicity degree awarding gap.”

Dr Sally Andrews, who led the research carried out for TASO by the Staffordshire Centre of Learning and Pedagogic Practice (SCoLPP): 

“The project found that there are often key people who drive change within an institution, and there is an imperative for providers to recognise and support these individuals.

“We additionally recommend that providers invest time and resources to planning and evaluating interventions that are tailored to their specific contexts, with a clear understanding of how change will occur. This then needs to be supported by investment that persists even when new priorities emerge. Evaluations should prioritise continuous monitoring that both identifies the barriers and facilitates those activities that are successfully addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap.”

In response to the findings, TASO recommends higher education providers: 

  • Consider the nuances of different approaches to tackle this gap so they are better placed to develop interventions that are tailored to their organisation. Theories of Change and evaluation plans should be developed while planning interventions to maximise the likelihood of success.
  • Reflect on organisational structures and explicitly allocate accountability and responsibility for addressing inequalities so providers can best determine what systemic changes can be implemented to support these challenges. 
  • Use data to inform action taken to address this gap. By including data analysis as a stage in the organisational Theories of Change, providers can recognise the importance of this and use their findings to inform later stages of the approach. 
  • Include students in their work to address this gap and develop models for student co-creation, moving away from a model that onlyconsults students on plans to address these inequalities. 
  • Provide nurturing, ‘safe’ environments where staff can discuss plans and experiences with others without fear of blame or reputational damage. This will enable more effective conversations and more deliberate action to address these inequalities. 

Based on the findings and recommendations from this report, TASO will be collaborating with six higher education providers, providing them with evaluation support to develop a Theory of Change for interventions aimed at addressing this gap.

A total of 249 Access and Participation Plans (APPs) were analysed for this project. Interviews were held with staff from higher education providers to better understand institutional infrastructure, attitudes and approaches. An Expert Reference Group provided critical reflection and discussion when developing and refining the findings and recommendations. This group comprised experts from various fields across higher education providers and charities. 

SCoLPP is a specialist research centre at Staffordshire University which develops evidence-informed pedagogic practice to connect learning and teaching with improved social mobility. 

The ethnicity degree awarding gap refers to the notable difference in the proportion of students from marginalised ethnic backgrounds being awarded a first or upper-second class degree when compared to White students.

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