Addressing the BME attainment gap in universities

Alec Cameron

Professor Alec Cameron

Aston University

In June 2018, Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS, and Amatey Doku, Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), launched a joint initiative between Universities UK (UUK) and the NUS to help universities improve the attainment and university experience of black and minority ethnic (BME) students across the UK. Professor Alec Cameron, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, talks about the issue and the initiatives being developed to tackle it.

The majority of students at Aston University identify themselves as BME, and in fact, in 2017, Aston University admitted a bigger proportion of ethnic minority students than any other university in the UK: 72.4% according to UCAS admissions cycle data. 

But it is the achievement of those students at university and beyond which really matters, not just gaining access. This is especially so at Aston – where our value proposition to students is come here, work hard, and we will support you to get a great graduate job.

At Aston, BME students are in the majority. BME students are less likely than white students to drop out, and are more likely to seek help from our Learning Development Centre – which provides practical support with skills like mathematics and academic writing. Yet, despite this, we have not fully closed the attainment gap, albeit it is smaller than at many institutions.

Analysis of our own data shows that while white and BME students both secure excellent graduate outcomes, there is a small gap, meaning white graduates are slightly more likely to gain highly skilled employment or be in further study than their BME peers.

One of the areas we are keenly pursuing at Aston is the role of work-based learning. Research at Aston demonstrates that taking a placement year may have a moderating impact on the BME attainment gap; unfortunately, BME students are less likely to take the opportunity to undertake a placement year.

Along with Birmingham City University, City University of London, and Ulster University, Aston is leading 'Levelling the Playing Field' – a project supported by the HEFCE (now OfS) Catalyst Fund which is scaling up existing interventions that are proven to support increased take-up of placement and work-based learning. The focus is on engaging harder-to-reach groups through targeting specific courses, tailored communications, and using additional people on the ground to maximise reach. Ultimately, we aim to get more students to take placements, to reduce our BME attainment gap, and to get more students into graduate-level employment.

But, currently, it is the case that not every student benefits equally from their university experience, and that cannot be acceptable to any Vice-Chancellor.

So, last week, I was delighted to host the first of several evidence sessions of the collaborative project between Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to address the BME student attainment gap. Around 50 participants, with a wide range of experience and expertise, gathered at Aston to hear powerful student testimonies, to share information, discuss research findings and evidence of what works, and to open up about the challenges we all face in seeking to reduce and eliminate degree attainment gaps across the higher education sector.

We covered a lot of ground in our session, but two linked themes emerged strongly for me:

  1. We need to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap. This means gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive, detailed and multi-dimensional way than we may currently be doing. And we certainly need to move away from viewing BME students as a homogenous group – in our analysis of data, and in our interventions. Being more scientific also requires universities to harness the power of applied research to ensure evidence on 'what works' is high quality. And when it comes to sharing evidence of what works, we need also to open up and share evidence of what hasn't worked.
  2. We also need to get better at talking, and at listening. Data alone does not tell the full story. Hamza Shaikh from Huddersfield Students' Union gave a powerful speech about his experience as a student. He underlined just how important a sense of real belonging is, and what a difference it can make. When daily experiences make you feel like you don't belong, a high achieving student can easily find their grades, and confidence, slipping. We need to make more opportunities to talk to students directly about the attainment gap, and what they think lies behind it.

It is a hugely positive step that Universities UK and the National Union of Students have come together to lead this joint initiative. I encourage colleagues across the sector to engage fully with the project. 

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