Planning work on BME Student Attainment

This year, I’ll be leading some work across the institution to challenge the degree attainment of students in different subject areas – we know that there is a wide difference in the number of good degrees awarded from subject to subject, and that this has an impact on student success after graduation and ultimately on university league table position.

When I look into the data on student success in more detail, we start to see other startling patterns. The one which stands out the most is the difference in attainment between white students and BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students. This isn’t a situation unique to Staffordshire University, as can be seen in the statistical releases from the Equality Challenge Unit.


However, I am committed to tackling this issue head on within our university – driven by a commitment to social justice and an ability to “do the numbers””.

I fully accept that this is going to mean some difficult conversations, and already I’ve had some challenges when I’ve talked about this in faculties. It will also mean some significant learn for me, and a preparedness for many of us to talk about things that make us uncomfortable (or instance – do you know the difference between race and ethnicity? Or should you use the term BME?)

Reading the plan for the Equality Challenge Unit, I’m going to shamelessly copy the four strands of their strategy, and to adapt it to our own needs:

“Illuminate – Provide quantitative and qualitative evidence on equality and diversity within UK HEIs and colleges in Scotland to illuminate equality and diversity challenges in these sectors.

Articulate – Work collaboratively with and assist external bodies on equality and diversity matters that impact on UK HEIs and colleges in Scotland.

Champion – Develop the case for equality and diversity to secure and maintain the commitment and support of institutional leaders.

Transform – Work with all institutions to identify and change any cultural and systemic practices that unfairly exclude, marginalise or disadvantage individuals or groups, and to promote inclusive approaches.

– See more at:”


For us at Staffordshire, my initial thoughts are:

Illuninate – identify through our own data sets the levels of attainment of different groups of students, based on characteristic such a ethnicity, gender, disability and age. Compare with national trends to identify which specific areas we need to work on

Articulate – work collaboratively with a group drawn from across faculties and services and the Students’ Union (I’m delighted that Rochelle, our SU President, wants to be involved) to develop a shared understanding and message for the institution, together with practical steps that can be taken

Champion – develop a range of actions and measurable targets that can be tested through processes such as Annual Monitoring and Quarterly Business Reviews, to ensure commitment at the highest level

Transform – promote inclusive practices across the institution, related to recruitment, teaching and learning,assessment, personal tutoring, data analytics etc.

I don;t expect this to  be an easy journey, but it’s the right one to take. To provide some more background and some inspiration, we’ve got a great speaker, Dr Winston Morgan of UEL, to come and talk about the attainment gap at this year’s Staff Fest Learning and Teaching Conference.

BME Student Attainment

Previous blog posts have looked at the attainment of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) student attainment. At Staffordshire University, we will be carrying out more work in this area, as part of our drive to improve student attainment, recognising that students who succeed in their studies and gain good degrees, are more likely to gain good graduate jibs. This is clearly a benefit for the individual student, but also for the institution as it will have a positive effect on our league table position.

Previously we have looked at the attainment gap between white and non white students, and seen that the gap in our university is similar to that nationally.

Recently the Equality Challenge Unit published its “Equality in higher education: statistical report 2013”, which has the following headlines:

  • 17.7% – The difference between the proportion of white qualifiers receiving a first or 2:1 and the proportion of black and minority ethnic qualifiers receiving a first or 2:1.

There is a persistent gap in the degree attainment for students with different ethnicities, although this has decreased for the second consecutive year.

However, when we analysed the figures closely we found the gap differed widely depending on the age of the student:

  • 8.6% – ethnicity attainment gap for students 21 and under.
  • 26.3% – ethnicity attainment gap for students 36 and over.

The pattern is repeated for disabled students, although less pronounced:

  • 2.5% – disability attainment gap for students 21 and under.
  • 6.9% – disability attainment gap for students 36 and over.

A significant drop in the numbers of mature students applying to university has been widely reported. If older students are less likely to receive a good degree, more may decide that going to university isn’t worth their while. It seems clear that more needs to be done to support and retain this group of students.

So for our own data for 2012-13, we need to consider age as well as ethnicity, and when considering disability (where we had hardly any gap at all in 2011-12l) we will also build in age to the analysis.

To support work across the university on addressing this challenge, this year’s Learning and Teaching Conference on 1st July 2014 will have  a keynote speech on the attainment gap, and ways to tackle it, delivered by Dr Winston Morgan of UEL – put it in your diaries now!



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.



More on BME Attainment

One of the reasons I look at this is because I am tasked with trying to increase the number of “good” degrees, ie 1sts and 2(i)s that we award.

It is obvious that if certain groups of students are less successful than others, then we need to understand why, and in so doing make sure that that all of our students have the same opportunities to succeed.

The Higher (24th January 2013) in an article “Black students reluctant to seek aid”, suggests that a reason for lower attainment might be because of a reluctance to seek help from lecturers. the suggestion is that unversities need to be more proactive in ensuring that black students access the academic support on offer.


In an era of increasing class sizes, this will be a challenge – if we can develop personal tutoring systems or encourage enough small group teaching  with formative feedback opportunities, we may be better placed  to identify when any of our students need extra support.

More details of the research carried out by Jacqueline Stevenson of Leeds Met can be downloaded from here.

BME Attainment Gap

An article in the Higher, entitled “Mind, don’t dismiss, the BME attainment gap” refers to the difference in attainment by different groups of students.

Some really frightening stats here:

 “Figures released this week by the Equality Challenge Unit show that 69.5 per cent of UK-domiciled white students achieved a first or a 2:1 in 2010-11, compared with 51.1 per cent of BME students.

The gap was even wider for black students, with only 40.3 per cent scoring a first or a 2:1, according to Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2012, published on 20 November.”

Worryingly, this is reflected across many UK HEIs, and I know that the stats for Staffordshire University show similarly worrying trends.

I think it’s time to identify what we can do to tackle this.