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Mind the gap

  • 31 August 2018

This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Helen Howard, Academic Project Lead for the Student Attainment Project at the University of Derby, and Professor Malcolm Todd, Provost (Academic) at the University of Derby.

W we aim to achieve an excellent pedagogical experience for all of our learners, regardless of discipline here at the University of Derby. Our recent Teaching Excellence Framework Gold Award reflects our commitment to inclusive teaching excellence.

However, the national picture continues to show a disparity in student attainment by ethnicity, gender, disability and socio-economic background. This is compounded when we consider the impact of a student’s cultural understandings and previous experiences of education on the individual.

Research by Advance HE on attainment gaps by ethnicity shows an attainment gap in England of 15.6 percentage points, and there have been no resolutions in reducing this gap over the last two decades. Across UK higher education, this scale of gap persists when all other factors are accounted, which raises several points we have a moral duty to our learners to address.

The question is how to make the intended aim of teaching in higher education – of offering positive attainment for all students – part of the current outcome for all in higher education. The Disparities in Student Attainment (DISA) research project shows reducing the attainment gap is not easy. We would argue, it is a constantly moving challenge as new students with different life experiences enter an established higher education system with often static staff and canons of knowledge.

As Nona McDuff’s work at Kingston University shows, a continual conversation between the university and its students is essential to generate meaningful and lasting change impacting on students’ learning experiences and universities’ learning and teaching practices. So does a commitment from institutions and staff to reduce the attainment gaps that are evident, whether this is through increasing the diversity of staff employed or reviewing curricula.

All of this has a cost and necessitates a commitment to institutional change, but you could argue this is well overdue. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework suggests it is difficult to argue that we are excellent teachers if we do not provide an equality of experience and opportunity for achievement to all students.

Twenty-two years of evidenced practice research in the attainment gap of Black and Minority Ethnic students and white students suggests a sustainable form of cultural change is needed. At the University of Derby, we are committed to change through the development and growth of an inclusive environment. We see inclusivity being developed through executive-level leadership of the issue.

It is also necessary to have detailed knowledge of the data of the students within our institutions, an inclusive learning and teaching environment and an effective relationship between our students and institutional colleagues. After successfully reducing the attainment gap, we are seeking to build on this with funding through an Office for Students’ Catalyst grant, which concludes in February 2019, in a collaborative project with the University of West London and Southampton Solent University that will identify and reduce the barriers to student success.

A major area of development at our institution is a commitment to the sustainability of this area of work through our inclusivity model and sharing our practice with the sector. We have developed a range of resources for teaching, from assessment and feedback support models to exploring group work and placement learning issues.

Our intention is not just to eradicate the attainment gap at the University of Derby but to provide an inclusive learning environment for our students and staff and to offer a collegiate environment for continuing discussion.

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