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Disaggregating BAME to look at awarding gaps more closely

  • 16 July 2021
  • By Richard Boffey

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Richard Boffey, Head of AccessHE, the pan-London network driving the higher education access, success and progression agenda for underrepresented learners across the capital. You can find Richard and AccessHE on Twitter at @rgboffey and @AccessHE.

Of the 24 recommendations put forward in the final report of the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities earlier this year, one that arguably received less attention – and certainly less criticism – than others was a recommendation in relation to use of the term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). The report called for a stop to ‘using aggregated and unhelpful terms such as ‘BAME’, to better focus on understanding disparities and outcomes for specific ethnic groups.

Whatever one’s view of the Commission’s wider findings, the language of this recommendation is likely to resonate with anyone in the higher education sector working to close degree awarding gaps between different ethnic groups and involved in efforts to tackle racial inequality in higher education, of which these differences in degree outcomes form part.

Although sometimes referred to as the ‘BAME attainment gap’, awarding gaps – that is, differences in the proportion of students from different backgrounds achieving a First Class or Upper Second degree – are in fact reported on and addressed by providers at the level of specific ethnic groups, much as the Commission’s report advocates. But as new research published today by AccessHE and London Higher argues, this granular approach to the issue could and should extend much further.

The report, Going Beyond BAME: Higher Education Awarding Gaps and Ethnicity in London, proposes a more fine-grained approach to awarding gaps that is attentive to the experiences of specific ethnic communities within London higher education rather than collapsing these together under the ‘BAME’ label. This means listening to the views of students from these communities and taking account of their lived experiences when seeking to understand why awarding gaps exist as well as taking action to close them.   

London is an instructive case study for the research. It could be seen as a symbol of the opportunities that exist in higher education for students from ethnic minority backgrounds, who are progressing in ever greater numbers. Yet as the English region with the highest non-continuation rate and marked gaps in continuation between White and Black students in particular, London also exemplifies the challenges that remain when it comes to achieving equitable student outcomes. Thus, looking at London allows us to consider what works in narrowing awarding gaps at institutions with ‘hyper-diverse‘ student bodies and in contexts where ethnicity appears to shape opportunities for students in and beyond higher education. The density of higher education providers in London also enables greater comparison and sharing of approaches to closing these gaps.

Of the report’s findings, three are worth highlighting here. Firstly, the headline degree awarding gap by ethnicity in London, although lower than the figure nationally, masks significant differences at provider level as well as between specific ethnic groups and their white counterparts. Looking at ‘good honours’ awards, the gap is as small as 3 per cent at certain institutions and as large as 26 per cent at others. Moreover, drilling down into First Class degrees specifically, it is evident that, not least at the institutions with small ‘good honours’ awarding gaps, very large gaps exist between white and Bangladeshi/Pakistani and between White and Black students at the highest level of attainment.

Within ethnic groups there also appear to be attainment patterns that cut across providers. Indian students in London for instance are proportionally more likely than students from all other ethnic groups besides White and Chinese students to achieve a First Class degree, however they are also most likely to graduate with an unclassified degree. We must ask why this is the case and what is causing it.

Secondly, the report finds clear evidence that students from minoritised groups in London higher education see a difference between their experience at university and that of their white peers. Whether in the form of structural racism, microaggressions or curriculum content, the students from ethnic minority backgrounds who participated in focus groups for this report identified various ways in which they felt excluded from their home institution. They were aware of efforts underway to address these issues, for instance by decolonising the curriculum, but saw this process as a challenging one. Many of them advocated training for staff and increased representation of minoritised communities within the staff body.

Thirdly, and continuing the theme of institutional strategies, the provider-facing research conducted for this report highlighted a wide range of initiatives already underway across London aimed at closing degree awarding gaps. This is encouraging to see and should provide helpful impetus for further work in this area. One important suggestion that emerges in the report is taking a holistic approach to race and ethnicity that considers the interplay between these and other factors such as prior attainment, qualification routes into higher education and commuter status in shaping degree outcomes, rather than addressing them in silos.    

For all the available good practice to draw on in London, provider-led strategies alone will not be enough to close awarding gaps in the capital. Doing this will require multi-agency collaboration, bringing together providers, students, the Office for Students (OfS), the Mayor’s office and local partners. As the report suggests, an achievable first step on this journey would be to broker pan-London discussions to identify common challenges and possible joint approaches to the task at hand, recognizing that there is no silver bullet solution. Alignment with the Mayor’s Inclusive London Strategy and its commitment to increasing access to graduate-level labour market opportunities for Black students, is another potential avenue. The OfS has an important role to play too in how it engages with providers and works with them to agree attainment targets that are informed by data and pertain to specific student groups, even where they may form a small part of the student body.

Most fundamental of all to achieving meaningful change, however, is to recognize that, in closing degree awarding gaps, the BAME label as a mechanism of orienting policy and practice has its limitations.    

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