BME attainment: why universities must do more than 'mind the gap'

Steve West

Professor Steve West

Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive
University of the West of England, Bristol
students group work

June 2018 saw the launch of a joint initiative between Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to bolster university attainment and improve the university experience of black and minority ethnic (BME) students in the UK. Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of West England, Bristol, says his institution is running initiatives that will create a more inclusive and supportive environment.

All universities aim to do their very best for their students.

Many have a version of this ambition as a mission statement, or say it is at the core of what they do. Despite this widespread commitment, the facts suggest that more needs to be done to enable students from all backgrounds to get good grades and move into well paid, fulfilling employment after graduating.

This is particularly the case where black and minority ethnic students are concerned: attainment gaps of more than 20% are common between minority students and other groups.

As I recently told a group of students and university representatives exploring the issue in Bristol, this is an area where the sector is doing 'stuff' without cutting through in a way that delivers results. This is seen in the individual student stories, and through the data that institutions collect.

A long-standing challenge

Listening to those who attended the evidence gathering session in Bristol – [one of five organised by UUK and the NUS] to look at how to tackle this issue – it's clear that more needs to be done.

We know that BME students experience greater financial challenges at university than other groups. We are also aware that university leadership teams are not representative of the student body and that some curriculums do not reflect minority groups' experiences. These areas need to be prioritised and addressed if the attainment gap is to be tackled.

It was heartening, therefore, to hear the ideas put forward at the session at UWE Bristol. Some of these ideas were practical, covering areas like training for staff and those who study with us. Others were cultural, playing into conversations about how organisations can set the standard for what is acceptable, and challenge language and behaviour that doesn't reach this bar.

Crucially, there's a question over leadership, and recognition that addressing this challenge is integral to creating a fairer, more prosperous society. Without that commitment from the top, those mission statements will seem empty.

Hope for the future

Some positive work is already happening at UWE Bristol to address these issues, including our successful Equity programme, which provides BME students with leadership development, access to role models, and opportunities to network with leading employers. Those who have participated in the programme have told us it made a huge difference, and we believe that Equity has created a blueprint that others could follow.

We are also taking significant steps towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, through initiatives that aim to create a more open, tolerant and supportive culture across the whole university.

With one in four students at UWE Bristol coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, we are proud that the university's student population reflects the communities in which it is based. We are absolutely determined to ensure that students from all backgrounds and all parts of our community can succeed by studying with us.

The evidence gathered from the UUK-NUS sessions will be crucial for understanding why this issue persists in universities today, and provides an opportunity for us to tackle it together. The case for reducing the attainment gap for BME students is undeniable: by working with students, staff and other universities, I'm confident we can deliver the change that needs to happen. 

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Randhir Auluck
Randhir Auluck says:
14 November 2018 at 20:52

Good to hear about the initiatives Prof West at UWE Bristol is putting into place to tackle to BME students attainment gap. Listening with an open mind to the experiences of BME students is a vital starting point, as is listening to the experiences of BME academics. It would be interesting to know if the attainment gap is across all disciplines and for all the various sunsets of BME students, that is, is the attainment gap larger for specific categories of BME students? It would also be interesting to know how beng taught by BME academics influences BME students’ learning experience and attainment. It is not just about having a prescriptive model of learning delivery but about adapting learning that fits the needs of particular groups of learners, and about recognising the impact of the relationship between academics and learners and how the quality of the latter can affect attainment. We know even simple acts of attention giving, positive reinforcement and encouragement  can make the world of difference to a student’s confidence levels (and some BME students might have had their confidence eroded by prior experience of exclusion and marginalisation based on race and ethnicity), and we know that confidence and self-belief can affect attainment. So creating a learning environment where BME students feel safe, valued and supported is a good starting point.

Dr Helen Scott
Dr Helen Scott says:
19 November 2018 at 13:54

Randhir your points and Professor West's points are well made. At the University of Northampton we are also having a strong focus on BME student attainment and making many efforts to understand different students' experiences of their time with us- the curriculum, the social aspects of their lives and their interactions with their peers, their tutors, and with wider University services. Your question about students attainment in different disciplines is a very good one. We are still looking at this but we are finding a lot of variation between subjects which makes it very difficult to know what actions to take. It's a complex picture. We have also looked at students entry qualifications, their backgrounds and the sorts of prior educational experiences they have. This work is ongoing so we haven't reached any firm conclusions yet. One interesting thing we have done is have regular forums for students to meet with senior staff to raise any concerns or points. For example some students  have told us they do not want to be identified as belonging to a group which they feel is seen as a "problem" which is very understandable. We have at times struggled to find the right language to talk to students or to discuss the attainment gap, for fear of upsetting or labelling people. But it is important to get beyond that because the alternative is doing nothing which we feel is wrong. So we have no easy solutions at this time- rather we are focusing on understanding, questioning and collaboration with students from all backgrounds to try to find ways forward. Students tell me that they appreciate being asked about how things feel from their perspective rather than academics assuming that  this or that initiative will make a difference. 

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