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Tackling the Ethnicity Awarding Gap in the West Midlands: a partnership approach

  • 10 November 2023
  • By Catarina Ferreira and Chris Millward
  • This blog was kindly authored by Catarina Ferreira, Evaluation, Research and Data Manager at Aimhigher West Midlands, and Chris Millward, Professor of Practice in Education Policy at the University of Birmingham.

During the last decade, English universities have become increasingly focused on addressing the ethnicity awarding gap – that is, the difference in the proportion of White students achieving the highest degree grades (first or upper-second class) compared to their counterparts of other ethnicities.

National evidence shows that, across the country, a significantly higher number of White students achieve a first or upper-second class degree compared to students from other ethnicities, with a particularly large gap between Black and White learners.

Whilst individual universities know what their own ethnicity awarding gap looks like, there is – as far as we are aware – little investigation of the situation in neighbouring universities across the country.  By adopting a place-based approach, we can explore whether different missions and subject profiles, and the diversity of local populations, influence patterns.  Regional collaboration can also be a powerful motor for sharing learning and designing joint approaches to addressing the gap.

It was with this goal in mind that Aimhigher West Midlands – a long-established partnership of the region’s universities – asked us to run a project that would share and compare data and insights across its members.  The aim would be to understand the characteristics of the ethnicity awarding gap across the region, what universities are doing to tackle it and what they have learned from this.  Our report on this study is available here.

By working across the West Midlands region and engaging with a diverse set of universities, we were able to compare places and institutions with quite different populations, as demonstrated below.

We found that, despite profound differences between the missions, course profiles, student and academic characteristics and learning environments in the universities involved in the project, they all demonstrate a significant awarding gap, particularly between White and Black students. This is regardless of the intersection with other available markers of student characteristics, such as IMD quintile, disability, sex, UCAS tariff or course subject.

These findings expose the systemic character of the ethnicity awarding gap.  The gap occurs in universities with relatively high and low proportions of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, and in both research and teaching intensive universities.  White students from the most deprived areas are more likely to be awarded the highest grades than Black students from the least (below).

In response to questions about their approaches to addressing their awarding gaps, partner universities highlighted the need to navigate between different imperatives.  This included balancing between targeting specific groups of students and implementing measures for all students, supporting individual students to meet the institution’s requirements and changing the way in which the institution works, and driving change centrally whilst empowering local agency.  Although discussion can become polarised, institutions ultimately recognised the need to adopt holistic strategies, combining senior leadership with local action and engaging with individual students whilst also changing policies and practices.

Partner universities identified how senior leadership were taking responsibility for monitoring activity, and the particular importance of highlighting ethnicity awarding gaps within overall approaches to reviewing learning, teaching and assessment, and academic skills support.  They also provided examples of how they were using learning analytics to provide timely data patterns on student engagement and academic performance, whilst engaging in structured dialogue with minority ethnic staff and students to gather feedback and advice. 

Partners had an appetite to share their approaches in these areas, whilst also identifying, investigating and testing hypotheses on the causes of the ethnicity awarding gap in a systematic way.  This would include testing for issues such as conscious and unconscious basis within assessments, marginalisation among minority groups on campus, and the influence of curriculum content and commuting to study.  Perhaps most interestingly, it would compare the experiences and outcomes for courses that are delivered and assessed by academic staff of different ethnicities. 

Work of this kind needs to be underpinned by robust conceptual insights and design, which raised questions between the partners about the extent to which institutions’ strategies to address the ethnicity awarding gap are influenced by the research of their own academic staff.  Increasing awareness of the ethnicity awarding gap during the last decade, coupled with the strategies required by regulatory requirements during the last five years, has stimulated a growing literature that has helped to scope out the field, evaluate activity and provide practical guidance in this area.  This work demonstrates a shift in tone and focus from generic references to BME or BAME under-attainment to the factors influencing the grades secured by particular groups of students in different contexts and with intersecting characteristics, and the effect of strategies involving different actors and levels of institutions. 

This includes studies of student perceptions, which explore how self-determination and identity influence the experiences and outcomes of minority ethnic students, and how strategies can be influenced by their voices and views.  Also, studies of different types of intervention, such as data-driven approaches, student-led peer learning, diagnostic testing and student mentorship, work experience placement, curriculum decolonisation and institution-wide change.  There are studies located in particular subject areas – such as STEM, health and social care, geography and environmental sciences, medicine and life sciences – and both teaching and research intensive institutions.  

There is also a further category of critical investigation that asks more profound questions about the character of policy, institutions and relationships in English higher education.  Research of this kind challenges the motives of policy makers and institutional leaders who promote diversity and measures to address the ethnicity awarding gap, associating them with institutional and self-promotion in competitive higher education settings.  It also questions whether focusing on interventions and causality under-estimates the level and scope of racial injustice underpinning the issues in higher education, and it calls for a more fundamental response from institutions and governments. 

If we want successfully to engage our students and academic staff, we need to bridge between the separate discussions we are having about race and ethnicity in our seminar and committee rooms, both within and beyond our institutions.  This will really test the boundaries of our appetite for change. 

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