Exploring solutions to ethnicity attainment gaps – one university's experience

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. Here Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, shares recent experience of his institution's efforts to tackle the BAME attainment gap.

Universities are a 'social good'. They shape society through their teaching and research, while graduates are more likely to participate in society, live longer and healthier lives, and earn more than their non-graduate peers.

In at least one respect, however, universities have fallen behind. Despite their commitment to embracing diversity and providing opportunities based on merit alone, statistics tell a troubling story of racial inequity in opportunities, attainment and progression. While 21.3% of first year undergraduates are from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME 1) background, the figure falls to 19.3% for postgraduate taught students, and 16.4% for postgraduate research students – evidence that inequalities widen as staff and students proceed through study trajectories and careers.

Sheffield Hallam University by and large tracks the national picture. In 2016–17, 84% of our UK student population was white, while 15% was from a BAME background.

However, this figure does not reflect our region, where 21% of secondary school pupils are from a BAME background. Our 'attainment gap' (the difference between the proportion of white students who secure a first or upper second class degree, and that of students from a BAME background) is wider than that seen nationally, at eighteen percentage points. This is simply not good enough, so in 2017–18 we put in place an institution-wide approach to addressing the attainment gap.

Initially, departments were supported to develop interventions based on their own needs and perspectives, as well as evidence from students. Action research interventions, based on logic model approaches to evaluation, were used to frame activity, and we tested hypotheses at the specific points in the student lifecycle: recruitment, retention, attainment and graduate destination. In all we tested and evaluated the effectiveness of thirty-one projects, covering mentoring, placements, academic writing and decolonising the curriculum.

Through the departmental-level interventions, we found that staff recognition of the attainment gap increased. However, to build on this further and actually reduce and eradicate the gap, we are substantially scaling up this work into an institution-wide framework, and supporting it with the right infrastructure.

This includes recognising our key change agents (Heads of Department) and engaging further with students – including the Students' Union – as well as adopting, where feasible, participatory action research approaches. As a result, four university-wide interventions will be rolled out this year, led by my colleague Professor Jacqueline Stevenson who is leading this work for the University.

I was pleased we were able to share our experiences at an evidence session we hosted for the UUK/NUS collaborative project to address the BAME student attainment gap. To make progress in this area it is vital that we hear from many voices, and this session allowed for a range of valuable discussions which covered:

  1. Evidence and data: the robustness and accessibility of attainment gap data

  2. More open conversations about race, including how and when diversity training should be provided

  3. Inclusive environments: the importance of structures to allow BAME students to contribute to all levels of decision making, and whether inclusive practice or targeted interventions provide more benefit

  4. Initiatives: the importance of allowing interventions to be developed through departments, but also the need for a whole university approach to be taken to encourage cultural change

One thing in particular that came out of the evidence session was that universities have been slow to understand their own data: it's only in the last few years that evidence has been analysed. TEF metrics have been vital in drawing attention to differential outcomes.

Schools, the NHS and local government are all ahead of universities in this respect, so the sector has a good deal of catching up to do. If universities are serious about their mission to drive a more successful society, this work must be their highest priority.

1. We use the term BAME but recognise this term masks differences between ethnic groups and renders intersectionalities invisible; where possible we take a nuanced approach to our work.

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