BME Success – L&T Conference at University of Hertfordshire

I really pleased to be invited to this year’s Learning and Teaching Conference at University of Hertfordshire, where the topic was BME Success.

As previously noted in this blog, there is an attainment gap between white and BME students across the university sector in the UK. Uni of Herts have set themselves the challenge of addressing this throughout the institution, hence the focus of their annual conference.

This blog article is a summary of the notes I took on the day from certain talks- apologies to any of the speakers if I have misrepresented what you said.

Welcome Talk

The conference was opened by Andrew Clutterbuck, PVC Student Experience, who introduced the 3 reasons for needing to deal with BME success issues:

  1. Education transforms lives. Poor degree classifications can lead to significant detrimental effects and lost opportunities
  2. Academics should be challenged by the data and be prepared to reflect on it. Teaching without reflection has no soul.
  3. Business case. As data on the performances of universities becomes more and more widely available, there is a significant business risk to universities who have a significant attainment gap.

University of Hertfordshire have recognised that things are not right, and that something needs to be done, so BME attinment is embedded into their plan and policies.

Keynote Address – Winston Morgan

The keynote speaker was Dr Winston Morgan of UEL, a PL in chemistry, who has also researched BME attainment.

This gripping and detailed talk was of why the HE sector cannot continue to ignore the attainment gap. Some in academia understand some of the factors, but some, such as sense of self or identity, and policies and practices are more difficult to tackle.

Starting with the prospectus – all uni prospectuses tell the same story “come to us, and be set up for life”. Provided you are a certain kind of student.

The attainment gap is significant – 20% of UK HE students can be classified as BME, (a higher percentage than for the population as a whole). Indeed, in some institutions this might be 50% and others have high proportions of international students.

League table criteria are affected by the attainment gap – in terms of degree classification and subsequent factors such as student satisfaction, completion rates and graduate prospects.

Other issues for HEIs to consider are the impact of the new fee regime on students – how happy will they be if they do not see an equitable economic return on their investment and of course universities have a legal obligation to ensure that their practices are not discriminatory.

Dr Morgan had looked extensively at data provided by HESA, HEIDI, ECU etc. Here’s some highlights:

  • A black student with AAB at A-level is less likely to obtain a first from a Russell Group university than a white student with CCD at a million+ university
  • the attainment gap in Russell Group unis is 11%
  • the attainment gap in million+unis is 22%
  • the attainment gap in Russell Group unis in London is 15%
  • the attainment gap in million+ unis in London is 27%

The entry profile of students (qualifications on entry, age, socio-economic background) affects degree classification. Howver, when statistics are adjusted for these factors, the attainment gap still exists.

One of the factors that has the greatest impact is the level and type of entry qualifications

Entry qualifications are the greatest predictor of degree classification and universities at the top of league tables have the highest entry qualifications and number of good degrees awarded.

Post-92 universities, with their history of widening participation, tend to take students with a much broader range of entry qualifications. A-levels are the best predictor of HE success, and the best preparation for the style of HE study. However BME entrants are those most likely to have alternative qualifications. The students who are most likely to fail core modules in their awards are those who have entered through access courses or BTEC qualifications rather than A-levels. BME students being the most likely to have these qualifications, and so therefore the most likely to fail.

The impact of university policies and practices was considered using assessment offences as an example. The points raised were:

  • are a disproportionate number of BME or international students investigated for assessment offences?
  • are BME students more likely to be guilty of breaching policies?
  • are BME students more likely to receive negative outcomes from panels?
  • BME students quickly go from high to low academic confidence – could this lead to an increased likelihood of assessment offences

In considered the attainment gap of students Dr Morgan discussed the identity that might exist between staff and students, and categorised this as racial, educational and cultural.

Under racial identity:

  • are there BME tutors in the faculty?
  • staff must be able to see themselves in the students that they teach
  • students must feel they can “own” the university and attain the highest level
  • there needs to be a critical mass of BME staff in senior positions

Under educational identity:

  • do we acknowledge the difference in educational background between staff and students?
  • most academics have very traditional academic backgrounds
  • many students don’t have A-levels
  • there is a limited understanding of the educational background of WP students

Under culture

  • do academic staff recognise the cultural background of their students
  • are they aware of different cultural norms

Reference was made to the work of Jacqueline Stevens at Leeds, who identified a gap in behaviours between white and BME students based on ther perceived identities. White students were better and translating their confidence into actions They were: able to use all resources and create a strategy to enable them to do so; able to interact with tutors in and out of class; never questioning of their right to be at university; vociferous in demanding feedback and they rarely missed lectures. BME students on the other hand, lacked confidence in their ability to access all the resources of the university; were less likely to interact with lecturers and were more likely to adopt behaviours that minimised their chances of getting a good degree.

It is worth considering, as Dr Morgan did at this point, the following definition from the MacPherson report

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

The question is – are our universities institutionally racist?

Life After University – Sarah Flynn

Using data from DLHE and the Equality Challenge Unit, this talk showed that BME graduates were 3 times more likely to be unemployed that white graduates. In addition, BME graduates were less likely to be in full time employment and more likely to be underemployed (ie not in a graduate level job).

The question was raised of how this could be linked to the work being doe on graduate attributes, particularly around employability and professionalism.

It was suggested that BME students are aware of potential discrimination that they might experience in the workplace, post-graduation, and that this might reduce their expectations of university.

It was proposed that as well as improving degree classifications to fully deal with student outcomes a university also has to deal with: the impact of social deprivation; low levels of social capital and poor self esteem of learners.

Implications of Unconscious Bias (Thomas Baker)

Thomas posited that there were three forms of bias:

  • conscious bias
  • unconscious bias
  • unintended but perceived bias

All of these would be an obstacle to learning and may reduce student performance.

However it was also pointed out that the bias and behaviour works in two ways between tutor and student, and can have a range of detrimental effects.

Looking at the diagram below, and considering the various possible attitudes that the tutor and student bring to the class:


If they both come with a positive attitude and bias, then things are going to go well.

If the tutor is positive, but the student isn’t, then the tutor needs to work to raise the attitude of the students

If the student approaches the work with a positive bias, but the tutor doesn’t, then the student will be pulled down very quickly.

And if both are negative, then not very much learning is likely to take place.

The plan then is to try to cultivate positive bias, and to continually monitor this. In terms of simple practical idea: learn students’ names; shake hands with them if culturally appropriate (some students will only ever shake hands with one member of staff, and that is the VC at graduation) and learn and respect other customs. It was noted that all of these can be faked, but just like a lot of the literature on leadership, authenticity is crucial.

Interestingly, Thomas was from South Africa, and pointed out that South Africans were more likely to want to talk about the “elephant in the room”. This might be a good starting point when looking at attainment and ethnicity.


All in all, a really interesting day. Uni Of Herts have clearly done a lot of work in starting to tackle these issues, and got the message out to a large number of their staff. As we move through the year, we’ll be doing a lot more at Staffordshire, and I’m hoping that we can work with colleagues from Herts.