BME Attainment 2015-16

I’ve written on this blog many times before on the challenge of differential attainment in universities. Full disclosure – I no longer work in the sector, I’m white, middle class and educated at what is now a Russell Group university. This could be relevant,  it may contextualise my  opinions.

According to the recent report from Universities UK “Patterns and trends in UK higher education 2017“, then once again we can see data on degree attainment split into a crude ethnicity breakdown of “white”, and “BME”. the supplementary data provided add “other and don’t know”.

Plotting the data shows:

while the figures provided are:

showing that the attainment gap between white and BME students stubbornly remains at about 15% when we consider “good degrees” to be a 1st or 2(i).

Equally telling however, is the wide differential in numbers of first awarded to different groups, and the fact that BME students are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be awarded a third.

Clearly, a lower degree classification affects life chances in terms of potential graduate employment.

UUK highlight that

“Although part of this gap will be due to differences in entry qualifications, prior attainment and subjects taken across the two groups, HEFCE has noted that for UK-domiciled, first degree graduates at English higher education institutions, even when these factors are considered, there is still a significant gap between the proportions of white and BME students obtaining a first or upper second class degree. Further HEFCE research has also identified potential explanatory factors for this difference, which include curricula and learning (including teaching and assessment practices), relationships between staff and students, social, cultural and economic capital, and psychosocial and identity factors.”

Data and evidence have long been available to show that for given entry characteristics, BME students are less likely to obtain a good degree classification than their counterparts, so we should be asking where we have to look to understand why our universities do not appear to be operating as the progressive liberal meritocracies they claim to be.

Kalwant Bhopal in “Addressing racial inequalities in higher education:
equity, inclusion and social justice” explores how  inequalities in access to elite universities continue to exist for those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and suggests that gaining a place at an elite university is related to access to social and cultural capital. Referencing  “The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions and Meritocracy at Elite Universities” ,by Natasha K. Warikoo, Professor Bhopal identifies themes that, for me, have resonance with Reni Eddo Lodge’s recent book “Why I am no longer talking to white people about race“.

Immediately striking from a reading of these two works is the critique of meritocracy that we have clung to. Once we recognise the impact of power, then as Bhopal writes “It can be argued that the concept of meritocracy as one that is used to reproduce and legitimise class privilege or indeed a system that enables those already in positions of power to maintain their elite position and ensure that it is passed down from one generation to the next.”

Reni Eddo Lodge defines what she calls structural racism: “This is what structural racism looks like. It is not about personal prejudice, but the collective effect of bias. it is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically impact people’s life chances. Highly educated, high earning white men are very likely to be landlords, bosses, CEOs, head teachers or university vice chancellors”. She places this definition firmly in a reading of British history, and again shows that belief in the meritocracy satisfies those who currently benefit from it.

Bhopal states:

“Universities must listen to and address the challenges that black and minority ethnic students face in higher education. There is ample evidence to suggest that black and minority ethnic students’ experience disadvantages at different stages; from admissions, their experience, whilst at university and in the class of degree they are awarded. However, few universities have policies and strategies in place to address these disadvantages. Universities must address the racism that takes place in their institutions which exists as part of the social structure of their organizations, and move away from a deficit focus which blames individuals rather than examining the institutional racism that forms part of the structures of higher education.”

Bhopal proposes mandatory unconscious bias training for staff in universities as well as identifying the need to develop social and cultural capital in good schools prior to university.

I think there are other questions to be asked, and suggest the following

Unconscious bias training is a good start, but I have heard it described by Gurnam Singh of Coventry University that a limitation is that “it shows you’re a little bit racist, but that’s ok because it’s unconscious”. Unconscious bias assessment and training is just one step on a journey – it’s what you do next with that knowledge so how is this followed up?.

Also (and from a data nerd you know this is coming) the HESA datasets can be mined to provide much more information. Institutions can identify how they perform individually against this national average – by definition, some will perform better and some worse) and combine with their own internal data. Does this tell you anything about differential outcomes by discipline, by department? In fact, are you even aware of how students of different ethnicity are distributed across your university, as they are almost certainly not evenly distributed?

A further issue is the feeling of belonging, and the right to belong. If as Bhopal states universities “maintain their status by representing themselves as white and middle class, spaces reserved for those who are just like them”, then it would be useful to explore the extent to which staffing (particularly academic, professional and management) reflects the make up of the student body. If all your lecturers are white and middle class, then this might be sending a strong signal about who university is for. Once again, the HESA data can be used to look at staff profiles, and it would be an interesting exercise to look for any correlation between staffing profile, student profile and degree outcomes.

Finally, what happens on graduation day? Let’s say you have a department where 50% or more of your students are from a BME background. What did the academic procession look like, especially the senior staff? Similarly, of the recipients of honorary degrees, how many of them are from the same background and are representative and aspirational role models for your students?

I know I don’t have the answers, I’m just hoping to add some more questions to help understand, and to shine a light on areas where changes could be made.


Only moments after publishing this, my attention was drawn to a new publication on the Wonkhe website, which provides the HESA data on degree attainment, and the gaps, by institution. You might want to wander over there and read Nona Buckley-Irvine’s piece “Universities’ shame – unpicking the black attainment gap“.


Differences in Student Outcomes

Successful outcomes for students are often used as a proxy for institutional quality, hence the use of good degree outcomes, or value added, in league tables. The forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework will almost certainly look at student outcomes as a measure also. However, not all students succeed equally, and we know from our own work at StaffsUni of the gaps in attainment between different groups of students.

The recent Green Paper, as well as highlighting the possible future TEF, indicates the government’s desire to see an increase in numbers of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds as well as looking to ensure that all students can achieve.

In the light of this, last Monday I attended a HEFCE conference in London “Addressing differences in student outcomes: Developing strategic responses”, which looked at the findings of research into differential outcomes from Kings College London, and was an opportunity to hear from others in the sector on how they are tackling these issues.

Sessions attended were: the introduction by Chris Millward, Director of Policy at HEFCE; a presentation by Anna Mountford Zimnars of KCL;  a session by Sorana Vieru and Malia Bouattia  of NUS, and finally a session by Philip Plowden, DVC of University of Derby.

These are my notes of the day. Copies of the presentations can be viewed here.

Chris Millward HEFCE Director of Policy

Chris Milward started by considering where the government is on this agenda, linking the Green paper, the Treasury plan and plans from BIS.

Government wants to see a more diverse range of backgrounds in HE, in terms of entry, success and outcomes. For instance: double the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020; an increase in the number of BME students by 20% by 2020, and to the sector to address differences in outcomes.

This means more responsibility for universities together with strengthened guidance to OFFA and the potential role of the Office for Students. There is an anticipated stronger role in quality assurance processes through the impact of TEF and the future need to measure difference in outcomes based on data and metrics agreed by government. This will lead to more targeted funding together with more emphasis on meeting obligations.

The HEFCE analysis shows an attainment gap for BME students, based on A-level analysis and the more that you add in other factors, the bigger the gaps become.

In addition, when looking at POLAR3 domicile, then there are further unexplained HE outcomes.

When considering students with disability, then the data suggests that those students who received DSA support perform above average, while those without perform less well.

On postgraduate progression, there is currently an unexplained difference in outcomes based on POLAR3 quintiles.

When considering employment and looking at the 40 month survey rather than the 6 month DLHE, all POLAR3 quintiles have worse outcomes than quintile 5 and for professional employment in particular. There are worse outcomes for students with disability, irrespective of DSA and there are worse employment outcomes for all categories of BME students and particularly in professional employment. Finally on gender, men perform worse overall on employment, but better in professional employment.

The HEFCE approaches to working on closing the gaps in outcomes include:

  • National outreach programme
  • Funding for disabled
  • Supporting successful outcomes
  • Catalyst fund


Dr Zimnars presented the outcomes of major piece of research into differential outcomes, which is available here.

“Access without success is no opportunity”

The research considered three questions:

  • What is the pattern- empirical?
  • How do we explain it – causal model?
  • How do we change it effectively- policy and empirical?

The question was asked – “Do we need causality- if intervention works, does the causal model matter?”

Explained pattern of differential attainment using model that looked through a lens of macro/meso/micro  levels and at experiences of preHE, HE and postHE.

4 explanatory dimensions were proposed:

  • Curricula and learning
  • Relationships -sense of belonging probably the most important factor
  • Cultural, social and economic capital
  • Psychosocial and identity factors

From the research, which involved asking questions of a large number of institutions, the level of awareness of the issue differed across institutions, although this may be changing now, possibly due to the proposals in TEF.

In terms of those institutions that tackled the differential outcomes issues the most successfully:

  • Whole institution effect is most successful
  • Need students academics and prof services working together
  • Bottom up approaches with strategic support
  • Universal and targeted interventions

Effective interventions were seen to be:

  • Improvements to T&L
  • Inclusive learning and curricula
  • Deconstructing assessment
  • Meaningful interactions
  • Role models and mentoring
  • Engagement with institution
  • Generally few evaluations especially a lack of long term evaluations

Ended with 5 groups of recommendations

  • Evidence base
  • Raising awareness
  • Embedding agenda
  • Staff as change agents
  • Students as change agents

Sorana Vieru and Malia Bouattia  NUS

 This presentation started from a previous NUS report, Race for Equality, and went on to look at a new NUS campaign on liberating the curriculum.

From previous NUS work, 42% of students said that the curriculum did not reflect their experiences particularly in history and philosophy. As well as looking at students as being in one particular demographic group, it was important to look at intersections between groups.

Work from NUS highlighted:

  • 23% of black students described learning environment as cliquey
  • Disabled students more dissatisfied in NSS
  • 10% of trans students not willing to speak up in class
  • Black students report lower levels of satisfaction on NSS on assessment and feedback

There was a focus on liberation-equality-diversity and the launch of a new campaign – “Liberate my Degree”. An online hub has been provided with resources for officers and reps with training resources to allow them to engage in debate in their institutions and to support becoming co-creators of curriculum.

Getting there  – Helen Hathaway Philip Plowden

Speakers from University of Derby showed the pragmatic steps they have taken to challenge the gap in attainment between white and BME students.

In terms of background, the University has 28000 students, most of whom were state school sector. 20% of these self-identified as BME. The attainment gap was 24.6% in 2009-10.  The impact of the work so far is the gap has closed to 12.4% in 14-15, although there was an increase in attainment across all areas this is a moving target.

Important thing is that there is no one single answer, so there was a need to stop looking and focus on the myriad interventions and see what impact they have.

  • No magic bullet
  • Post racial inclusive approach
  • Suite of different strategies needed

Four main areas of interventions are used: Relationships, academic processes, psychological processes, and social capital.

The project at Derby explored data (down to module level) and relied on the regular Programme health checks which used a digest of metrics including attainment by ethnicity. In these, the DVC meets with programme leads to engage with course teams at chalk face. Areas covered include: outcomes,  finances reliance on clearing, and staff numbers. In particular the programme health checks looked at “spiky” degree profiles- looking at individual modules and gaps, not with an intention to play a blame game but to ask what is going right and ask others to consider that.

To support interventions, Derby developed PReSS- practical recipes for student success whch contains evaluations and case studies and can be used from: Http://

The key lessons learned were:

  • No simple solution. Paralysis by analysis. Just have to crack on and do what works.
  • Learn from others
  • Post racial inclusive approach. Difficult to reconcile this with some of the morning’s talk. Is this unduly dismissive of liberation approaches
  • Importance of communication -degree of profile. But once in the mainstream it might get lost.
  • Need consistent way to measure attainment gap.
  • Important to evaluate interventions.

Points from Discussions

A lively discussion followed, and the following are just snippets of some of the topics – in some cases these reflect discussion we have had in our own institution, but I add them in almost as provocations for further debate.

  • Is there a threat to academic staff when we discuss this BME and other attainment gaps? A danger of appearing accusatory?
  • Why are there difference between subjects such as business and nursing – do cohorts have an impact? Why do the subjects with the smallest attainment gaps want to engage in the debate the most?
  • How do we check who uses the resources to support inclusive learning, and should we check?
  • How do you liberate the curriculum and how do we re-educate staff to draw on a wider range of ideas, since they are a product of their own subject and environment?
  • What about the Attainment gap for students who live at home where home life and working gets in the way of study?


In all, a thought provoking day. A lot of emphasis, as always on the BME attainment gap, but also more opportunity to explore attainment more generally and to recognise how this agenda will become increasingly important post-TEF.

In terms of what we could do next, then as we develop better internal metrics of modules and courses, we can start to see how we can use this information to understand better the outcomes that our students achieve. Linking this to revisions in the way in which we review our courses, both from a quality assurance and enhancement perspective, as well as a more data-centric health check would provide the opportunity to have the right discussions, to ensure that we maximise the opportunities for our students to be successful.


Equality Unit Statistical Report 2015

This year’s Statistical Report from the Equality Challenge Unit has just been published, and provides a wealth of detail on students and staff in the academic year 2013-14.

A main pat of my work has been looking at student attainment, and others in the University are working on addressing the attainment gap between white students, and those from BAME backgrounds.

Looking at the national data then, for 2013-14, we can see that:

“the ethnicity degree attainment gap in the UK was 15.2 percentage points. 75.6% of white qualifiers received a first/2:1 compared with 60.4% of BME qualifiers”.


“The ethnicity degree attainment gap has decreased from a peak of 18.8 percentage points in 2005/06 to 15.2 percentage points in 2013/14 – the lowest it has been in the last ten years.”

However, BME students cannot be considered as one continuous group, and variations exist between those of different ethnicities, as the graph below shows:


The attainment gap exists for all groups, but has closed the most for Asian students. We can now benchmark our own degree outcomes for 2013-14 against this data, and also our 2014-15 outcomes to see how we are progressing compared with the sector overall.

The report also looks at the impact of subject on attainment and ethnicity and states: “In every subject, a higher proportion of white qualifiers received a first/2:1 than BME qualifiers.”

Considering students with a disability, then the attainment gap is nowhere near as pronounced as it with with students from a BME background.


Finally the report considers the impact of  gender, and shows that female students were more likely than male students to gain a 1st or 2(i) and this was the case in all subject areas except social studies.

The report goes on to look at the intersections between the main groupings of data. One factor that is not considered is Widening Participation status. Although this is not a factor that is considered from an equality perspective, it is one that is raised as a possible factor whenever we talk about the attainment gap for BME students.

Ideally we need to be able to build models that allow us to visualise the outcomes of students, and to easily filter based on multiple characteristics. I’ve been doign abit of work on this very thing this week, and using some old data have built  Excel models that allow a visualisation of degree outcomes for combinations of ethnicity, WP status, disability and subject. It’s a great way of getting an insight into how different groups perform in different subject areas.


Overall however, as a sector we still have a huge challenge to face in tackling the BME attainment gap. I’ve been writing about it for a number of years on this blog. I really look forward to the day I don’t need to write about this subject.



Let’s Talk About Race

Over on the Equality Challenge Unit blog, Janet Beer (VC of Liverpool and Chair of the ECU Board) writes of the need for consideration of race equality in HE.

I’ve written plenty of times in the past about the differential outcomes for students, but here Professor Beer focuses on the inequalities for staff:

…..speculating about how long it will be before minority ethnic women, or minority ethnic individuals generally, are fairly represented within our sector is different. Leaders in our higher education institutions know that racial inequalities exist, but we are not talking about them publicly. None of us wants to attract negative press, or say the wrong thing, or to be accused of being institutionally racist.

Furthermore, whilst men and women are working side by side to promote gender equality, the equivalent does not seem to be happening to the same extent with race. The combined effort of men and women, with all acknowledging the need for change, has been crucial to the advancement of gender equality. For a step change in race equality to take place, the imbalance in advantage also needs to be acknowledged and owned by all.

Professor Beer rightly acknowledges the commitment of 26 universities to sign up to the new Race Equality Charter Mark (and it’s pleasing that Staffordshire University is in this group). She also refers to new ECU research which shows that

in a survey of 1201 academics working in the UK and overseas,  BME academics are significantly more likely to consider moving overseas in the hopes of furthering their careers than white academics.The research aims to highlight the differences between ethnicities when considering a move overseas and understand why these differences occur as well as establish what higher education institutions can do to retain staff or entice them back to the UK once they have left.

The interesting linkage for me in both the lack of a  diverse demographic of senior staff as well as a tendency to seek advancement overseas, is the  impact that this might have on our students.

At our own Learning and Teaching conference in 2014 Winston Morgan clearly showed the importance of having a teaching body that provides some reflection of the student body as part of of tackling the attainment gap of undergraduate students. By having a more diverse staff profile  at all levels and in all roles of the organisation might mean that all students can see more clearly that university is for people like them.

“Good” degrees – but not for everyone

In a recent post I looked at the latest HESA data on the numbers of 1sts and 2(i)s awarded, noting the continued rise, and how these figures feed into the various league tables.

I suggested then that the HEIDI data could be used to see how students from different groups perform – in fact this is how the Equality Challenge Unit annual statistical reports are compiled.

Having looked at the information from the last two years, then we can see the attainment gap for BME students for 2012-13:

HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Other (including mixed)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Not Known
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
Sector Average 69% 45% 55% 62% 44%
Gap 24% 14% 7% 25%


In 2013-14 this changes to:

HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
% 1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
% 1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
%1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Other (including mixed)
Classification of first degree
% 1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Not known
Classification of first degree
%1sts and 2(1)s
Sector Average 71% 48% 58% 65% 45%
Gap 23% 13% 5% 25%


So we can see that the attainment gap across the sector is beginning to close, but its still a work in progress. The data I’ve used to create these summary results does provide results for each institution, however I won’t be publishing that here, as all universities are tackling these matters in their own way, depending on their particular subject mix and student population.

At Staffordshire we’ll be doing some focused work in two particular schools (both of which I am currently seconded to), as these are our schools with the most diverse undergraduate populations. Conversations with our staff have already started to identify differing levels of engagement and attendance, and we are now looking at many of the topics raised by Winston Morgan, in his talk here last year, for instance the use of appropriate examples in teaching materials, the composition of the teaching team and the need to provide positive role models in an institution where the mix of people in power may not fully reflect the student body.

As well as considering ethnicity, we also need to look at how disability can affect student attainment. In general, disability has less of an impact on degree classification than ethnicity, however BME student with a disability are less likely again to gain a good degree, as shown in this data from the most recent ECU “Equality in higher education: statistical report 2013” :

ecu dis eth 1 ecu dis eth 2

None of this is going to be easy, but if we want to ensure success for all students then it’s an issue we need to tackle head on.

Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy

A new publication out this week from the Runnymede Trust, “Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy” looks at race equality in UK universities.

As David Lammy MP writes in the foreword:

Given lower admissions rates, degree attainment and employability, BME people will increasingly ask whether or not they are getting equal value for the £9,000 in tuition fees now charged for many courses. While higher education institutions cannot achieve equality by themselves, they must do more to pull down barriers and promote equality of opportunity

This fits with the comment we have made at SU regarding this as a business risk as well as an issue of equality.

A number of authors have contributed to the report, which is presented as a series of essays

To pick out a couple of highlights, Andrew Pilkington of Northampton University writes on “The Declining Salience of Race Equality in Higher Education Policy” and reflects on the efficacy of institutional policies on equality, suggesting that “writing documents and having good policies becomes a substitute for action.”

Pilkington refers to  an ethnographic investigation he carried out of one university in the decade following the publication of the MacPherson report, which considered how “Midshire University” performed against a definition of institutional racism. The original study is available as “Institutional Racism in the Academy: A Case Study” (or you can borrow my copy). On reviewing the state of universities today, Pilkington concludes:

that individuals from minority ethnic communities disproportionately experience adverse outcomes in higher education.And yet universities are extraordinarily complacent.They see themselves as liberal and believe existing policies ensure fairness and in the process ignore adverse outcomes and do not see combating racial/ethnic inequalities as a priority.

Pam Tattlow of Million+ looks at “Participation of BME Students in UK Higher Education”, identifying that “Twenty five per cent of all BME students study at 30
universities compared to an institutional average in the
UK of 16 per cent”. Tatlow goes on to consider the type of universities that have this disproportionate population mix and provides a number of recommendations for the sector:

  • more respect for the university choices made by BME students and the universities at which they study should be acknowledged, valued and promoted
  • government needs to scrap the measure of social mobility introduced by the former Education Secretary
  • whole sector challenge to address the gap in degree outcomes
  • impact of research funding distribution on BME students and staff needs to be addressed
  • too much complacency and too little research about the impact on BME students of the 2012 fee reforms and the reforms in further education

The last essay I’ll highlight is by Gary Loke of the Equality Challenge Unit on “Breaking the Race Inequality Cycle in Higher Education: A Change of Focus is Needed to Break the Statistical Groundhog Day”. as someone who has repeatedly looked at the differences in degree attainment between different groups of students at my own institution, then the idea of Groundhog Day appeals. Loke also refers to the idea of risk, but approaches it from a different angle. He proposes that reputational risk is seen as an excuse for inaction, and alternatively proposes that “we believe that institutions that have the courage to be transparent and openly discuss the challenges of addressing race inequality can enhance their reputation.”. Loke refers to a deficit model, where the focus is on changing the individual, whereas a more effective approach is a change to institutional culture,

However, instigating long-lasting, meaningful culture change is complex. There is no quick fix; to create an inclusive culture the whole institution needs to be involved, with strong commitment from senior leaders, signalling that they are prioritising the equality agenda and will be investing time and resource in pushing forward change.

Overall, a welcome addition to the writing on equality issues in the academy, and should provide plenty to think about, to anyone working in one of our diverse and exciting universities.



Equality Unit Statistical Report 2014

Last week, the Equality Challenge Unit published its annual statistical report which considers a range of data sets from HESA, relating to both staff and students. This provides a great insight into the diversity of all the people engaged in the UK higher education sector, but also provides data against which we can benchmark ourselves for activities such as Athena Swan or Race Equality Charter Mark.

A particular interest of mine is student success and attainment, so turning to the statistical reports on students we can see the following:

-The ethnicity degree attainment gap has decreased from a peak of 18.8% in 2005/06 to 16.1% in 2012/13, and is at its lowest since 2003/04. Nevertheless, the gap in attainment compared with UK-domiciled white first degree qualifiers remains considerable, particularly for UK-domiciled black: African first degree qualifiers (with a gap of 26.8%) and UK domiciled black: Caribbean first degree qualifiers (24.5%).
-The ethnicity degree attainment gap was larger among UK domiciled first degree qualifiers who studied non-SET subjects than among those who studied SET subjects.
-In every subject, a higher proportion of UK-domiciled white first degree qualifiers received a first/2:1 than UK-domiciled BME first degree qualifiers.

ECU bme degrees 2013

So there is still considerable work to be done, firstly to really understand the causes of the attainment gap, but much more importantly, to put interventions into place that will help to remove it. Some of the ideas at our Learning Teaching conference in the summer from Dr Winston Morgan of UEL are worth revisiting.

Any university that is trying to reduce the attainment gap has to be mindful of the classification of “BME”. This aggregation is not always helpful, and students from different ethnicity may have a range of different expectations and backgrounds that may affect their engagement and success. More useful is for an individual department in a university to gain a clear understanding of its own student body, their educational backgrounds etc, and then to review past performances on a more granular level, so that all involved in recruitment and teaching have a clearer idea of what the student population actually comprises.

When students with disabilities were considered, then in 2012-13 the percentage of students with declared disabilities gaining a first or 2(i) rose from the previous year.

In addition, the gap in attainment between students with or without a disability is much smaller than for the attainment gap seen for BME students:

ecu disability 2014

These two sets of data reflect what we have seen previously at Staffordshire University – a small (and sometimes insignificant) attainment gap for students with disability,but a significant attainment gap between white and BME students.

All in all, the statistics from ECU provide some really useful background information for universities as they progress their equality and diversity agenda.


The rationale for equality and diversity

A new publication out this week, from the Equality Challenge Unit is “The rationale for equality and diversity: How vice-chancellors and principals are leading change”.

As someone who has blogged in the past on BME student success issues, and has done a small amount of work in my own institution on this, I though it would be useful to see how leadership might influence how universities are tackling the various diversity and equality agenda.

In his blog, David Ruebain, chief executive of ECU, writes:

“Achieving equality and diversity through changing your institution’s culture and practices takes time. Meaningful change requires strong leadership and an understanding that equality is an integral part of a university’s mission.”


“..we wanted to look at why some universities and some senior leaders are more successful in advancing equality and diversity than others. Our summit partners were keen to explore what made these institutions stand out from the crowd: what drives these leaders to become proactive and public champions of equality and diversity?”

The report then covers the research aims and methodology; the institutional drivers for equality and diversity; personal drivers for vice-chancellors and principals, and evidence of benefits and impact including overall performance, globalisation, modernising learning, minority ethnic staff and students, widening participation and women in senior academic roles. case studies from 12 universities are presented to back up the research findings.”

Looking at the institutional drivers: ecu1

It is perhaps telling that that respondents considered that creating an inclusive environment for students was the most important, and seeking external recognition was the least important.

Interestingly, the personal drivers of VCs were considered and “this translated into a concern to increase attainment levels and reduce any gaps between different types of students (for instance, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or from minority ethnic backgrounds).”

Certainly my own passionate belief that in this institution we need to work more to understand why students with a BME background do not achieve in the same way as their white counterparts is driven by my own views of social justice and family history. Even this week I have been shocked by comments about how or why different groups perform and how important or unimportant this might be as an issue.

A number of universities had revisited their teaching and learning strategies, to ensure that they were inclusive, and had seen benefits that were experienced by all students. When Winston Morgan spoke to our Learning and Teaching Conference earlier this year, he highlighted that many of the action we may take to reduce the attainment gap between white and BME students will often improve the quality of education for all, and actually maintain the gap.

The recommendations from the report are primarily for VCs and leaders – how to use personal leadership, how to involve governing bodies and how to hold leaders to account against progress, recommending the need to “walk the talk”.

Looking at the individual case studies, then a few highlights for me on BME student attainment are as follows:

Wolverhampton University: a student-related objective is to increase the proportion  of BME students awarded 2:1 degrees. Attainment champions have been appointed in a number of schools. There are also objectives to close employability gaps for BME and  disabled students.

Kingston University: To send a strong message about commitment to equality, Bonnie Greer was appointed as Chancellor. With BME students accounting for more than half of the undergraduate population, their higher attrition rate and  attainment gap is a significant challenge that the 2012-2016  strategy seeks to address. An objective has been set to increase the proportion of BME undergraduate students achieving a first or 2:1 degree to 54.9%. Other measures include an increase in retention and progression rates for BME students. Energy is also being put into improving employability by setting
up an employability advisory panel and developing strong relationships with major employers.

Oxford Brookes: the university is taking a data-driven approach and has
undertaken in-house research into BME student attainment in order to drive the work on enhancing the student experience.

In conclusion – a useful addition to the canon of material on how to tackle equality and diversity issues, with a strong message that leadership can make a significant difference.

In terms of BME student attainment, then linking the importance of leadership and the need for data driven approaches, to the very clear recommendations from the research of Winston Morgan (around entry tariffs, assessment types, how well the academic staff and leadership reflect the demographic of the student population etc) would mean that a university would be able to identify the steps it needs to take to work towards reducing the attainment gap.


Staff employed at HEFCE-funded HEIs

HEFCE have just released data on characteristics of staff employed at UK HEIs, with a nifty little interactive tool to allow you to plot the graphs. Sadly it doesn’t;t allow you to add multiple categories together or anything truly interactive,but there are some inetrestign (and in some case, I guess, inevitable) results.

If we look at gender, then the more senior you are, and the higher up the pay scale, the more likely you are to be male. this applies in senior leadership roles, but also in academic roles.


If we look at ethnicity, then the higher up the greasy pole, the more likely you are to be white.


For those universities who are working toward the Equality Challenge Unit Race Equality Charter Mark, or indeed initiatives such as Athena Swan, then it might be interesting to consider recruitment and development policies and institutional results against the national trend, otherwise as a sector we are likely to reinforce the image of senior roles being for middle aged white guys (disclaimer – I am one).

To really get a better reflection, then an individual institution could compare its gender and ethnicity profile against both the general population and also against its local and student population. Certainly from a point of view of BME student attainment, there is often a significant difference in the diversity mix of the staff who lead and teach in universities and the student body.

For another view on these results, have a look at the registrarism blog by Paul Greatrix.

Learning and Teaching Conference 2014

This year’s University L&T conference, run as part of StaffFest2014 had as its theme Student success: raising attainment. Attendance was better than it has been in previous years, which was good news, but more of this later.

An introduction and welcome by the VC, Prof Michael Gunn, was followed by an introduction by me, where I looked at our league table position, emphasising the importance of student attainment. Using the strapline “we can be better than this”, I also introduced some of the data around attainment of BME students, before summarising the outline for the day and introducing our speakers.

Prof Liz Thomas

Liz spoke about Inclusive Pedagogy, introducing the 4 outcome indicators used by HEFCE – achievement of a degree; classification; employment, and graduate outcome. She explored the key themes of engagement:

  • Active and collaborative learning
  • Participation in challenging acadmei activities
  • Formative communication with academic staff
  • Involvement in enriching educational experiences
  • Feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities

Successful engagement involves an overlap between social, service and academic spheres, as below:


Liz also introduced data on differential attainment based on gender, ethnicity and disability, as well as looking at the impact of students from the different quintiles of the Polar3 classification.

Liz emphasised the importance of engaging all staff, not just academic, and said that the partnerships between staff and students were a key strategic enabler.


Dr Winston Morgan

Focussing in now on a specific issue, Winston took us through ideas on how to solve the attainment gap between BMR (or BAME) students and white students.

As well as presenting plenty of data to illustrate the existence of an attainment gap, Winston presented key questions to ask about our institution, before we start to understand how to solve the gap:


The main factors that determine or drive the gap are:

  • Prior knowledge
  • Student age on entry
  • Performance of white stdunets
  • Other more difficult to identify factors (academic confidence of BAME students)

If qualifications on entry are the driver of the attainment gap, then the institution must change either the admissions policy or change the L&T practices to suit the admissions policy. For example, on admission policy, students must be selected by specific subjects and grades, not just UCAS points When admitting students form BTEC backgrounds, then the entry tariff must be raised by 20-30% to allow for their previous learning styles. An increase of 30-40% should be considered for the tariff from access courses.

If the admissions policy can’t be changed, then Winston proposed changing the L&T practices to sit the admissions, by adopting the practices of BTEC and Access programmes, ie, fewer exams, multiple assessments, lower SSRs. Finally, provide the skills so that students can cope with the challenges and assessments of university.

Winston concluded by looking at the “identity gap”, as shown below:


Followed by messages to close the racial identity gap:


This was a challenging talk, and even though Winston spoke for longer than intended, I wasn’t going to ask him to stop! Over the next few days I heard so many positive comments about what a great talk it was.

Nonetheless, it does leave us with some significant challenges, some of which the BME project group can look into, but the key questions will be:

  • How much do we know about the issue at Staffordshire?
  • How could we change our admissions policy?
  • How could we change our L&T practices?
  • How could we address the issue of racial identity, and do we have role models in senior posts?

Paul Mangnall

The final keynote speaker was Paul Mangnall, Principal of Stoke on Trent 6th Form College. Paul provided a quick run through the processes used in schools (and in FE) maintain and ensure consistency.

Paul ran through the processes of teaching observations, noting that one observation a year led to a “cup final” scenario, with possible over preparation, unrepresentative performances, and increased pressure to perform. Instead, the process now involved observing a member of staff twice over a three day window.

  • The formal lesson observations were operationlised by:
  • Each member of staff formally observed twice per year
  • Observation window – any lesson to be observed within a 3 day period
  • Key strengths and areas for improvement identified for “close the loop”
  • Holistic view – included student progress against target grade, assessment, and student files
  • Trained observation team, formal moderation process
  • Links to departmental and individual performance management targets

The interesting thing about Pauls’ talk was that he described the same kind of observation processes that are used already in other universities. There is clearly scope for us to learn from other sectors and institutions.

Plenary sessions in the afternoon were on: the work of the BME project group; the Paul Hamlyn ”What Works” project group; the new personal tutoring policy;, and supporting students through the enabling centre. The final question time provided an opportunity for speakers to respond to queries about BME attainment, transitions to HE, electronic assessment and digital literacy

In conclusion, I was really pleased with the conference and the way in whuch so many people really engaged with the important theme of improving student attainment.

The only question I have is this: since we are a teaching-led organisation, then why weren’t all of our academic staff in attendance? It was particularly interesting to see who went to the leadership event three days later instead.

For future years we’ll be working hard to make this event much harder to avoid – with topics that are important for everyone who teaches or who supports teaching, then this shouldn’t be difficult. Well also work more closely with our faculties to engage them earlier in the planning process.