This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Suresh Gamlath, Dean of the Claude Littner Business School, University of West London. The Claude Littner Business School was named Business School of the Year at the Times Higher Education awards in 2019 in light of work to reduce the ethnic minority student attainment gap and in boosting its business partnerships to increase opportunities for both students and the community.
The BAME attainment gap is the difference in the proportion of BAME students attaining top degrees (1st and 2:1s) compared to students of other ethnic backgrounds. The difference is expressed as a percentage figure and is currently as high as 13.2 per cent nationally.
Closing the attainment gap and ensuring all of our students are working to their full potential is something we have long been focused on at the Business School as part of our wider commitment to education and diversity. Through concerted action and major transformations in how we think and approach learning at the Business School, we have brought this down to 0.8 per cent. This means a student from a BAME background has almost the same chances of getting a high level degree as as student from any other background.
The first step in achieving this was to acknowledge the reasons why that gap exists in the first place, before coming to an understanding that there is no single way to tackle this issue and that it is only through action and implementation that we could ever bring about real change.
Amatey Doku raises some very valid points in his blog piece which by and large resonate with our experience. One cannot address the BAME attainment gap without first acknowledging the diversity of the student body and their needs; and you cannot even begin to address the diversity of your student body without first addressing the diversity of your staff body. But while strategic intervention is necessary, a top-down strategy to target the BAME attainment gap (no matter how well funded) would have its limitations. Rather, strategy that is informed from the ground up would lead to the redesigning of processes and pedagogies by those who are at the heart of it and bring about a more meaningful solution. Later in this blog, I speak about the importance of an inclusive culture that creates a genuine sense of belonging among students, one which goes beyond merely a consultative role.
A need for action over debate was what drove big changes to how we work. We have implemented a highly collaborative means of tackling core issues behind this problem and refocusing ourselves to improve inclusion, involvement and self-belief, in turn breaking down significant attainment disparity and improving our student retention rates.
We discovered that to achieve any amount of success we needed to create a learning environment in which each student has an equal and fair opportunity to succeed given their individual talent and potential, irrespective of background, income, social class or ethnicity.
Crucially, at the heart of all this is the student: teaching must become focused on helping the student to learn and to develop as they are supported to achieve their true potential. It is not merely about delivering subject content. In other words, it is about teaching the student, not simply teaching the subject and that requires problem or inquiry-based learning. For example, our students being taught business development were introduced to a vacant shop premises in the local area and asked to come up with ideas for a business that could be successful there. There is no right or wrong answer. Students are taught to evaluate their research and decision-making process and reflect on how this can be improved while evaluating the skills that they used and how those could improve further.
But to be successful in this endeavour, the School itself must continuously adapt and evolve according to the needs of those students.
That is only possible if the students have a significant voice in shaping its key decisions at every level. We have fostered a strong culture of collegiality that brings all members together – academics, administrators and students alike, and fosters a strong sense of community and collaboration. This is impressed on all new joiners and through collaborative works such as the consultancy program. Academics and students work together as members of a project team to offer a consultancy service to local businesses. Students, under the supervision of experienced consultants, deliver services which are then assessed as part of their coursework. It is one way that we have established learning as a two-way street and a sharing of ideas.
Another way in which we have taken student voice further is by including students as interviewers in our selection panels for new lecturers. This model has been successful in creating a culture of trust, participation and inclusion that makes changing for the better a collective effort and one that does not threaten but instead embraces and enacts positive change. If the student is to be at the heart of our school, then we need to be changing continuously to adapt to the varying needs of our student body.
Having the right mix of tutors is crucial. Our tutors are a diverse bunch with a broad range of personalities and from many different backgrounds and experiences, coming together and working together towards a single purpose.
For many of our learners, their tutors are the role models that make all the difference and they need to have their creativity nurtured. Academics must be free to use innovative teaching methods, feel encouraged to try new approaches where existing methods do not seem to be working well enough and to be always improving. Having a strong collegial culture that includes our students is crucial in creating a strong bond of trust, which means that everyone is a part of this innovation process.
Academic leadership is important, but in this context, leadership means listening, understanding, and providing real support. It means understanding what your students and academics are trying to achieve, respecting their dedication and talent and making sure they have the right level of support. And leadership works both ways: while one can define a vision and purpose, one must follow the lead of one’s team to deliver.
Getting this right in practice leads to success in many areas. We have reduced the attainment gap across the school to a record low of 0.8 per cent and now work extensively with the community across West London as we continue to promote a cycle of collaboration and keep aspirations and self-belief high. The changes we made have enhanced inclusion and have been particularly beneficial to people in black and ethnic minority communities where it may be more difficult to get a foot on these career ladders.
Essentially, collaboration is at the heart of everything we do. We know that once you start taking the right actions you start seeing positive changes. That is how we are different at UWL, because we integrate that attitude with our teaching and learning. As a graduate of the University’s Business School myself, I am enormously proud of what the team and students have achieved. Our students are tomorrow’s leaders and the more we can do to encourage them all to reach their full potential, the more we will see the benefits in our communities.