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Mapping awarding gaps

  • 8 May 2024
  • By Kerr Castle

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  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Kerr Castle, Quality Enhancement & Standards Specialist at the Quality Assurance Agency.

Published last month, a HEPI Policy Note on ‘Non-continuation of students in the UK’ observed that continuation rates differ according to such factors as ethnicity, disability, deprivation and free school meals status.

Also last month, Universities UK staged a conference on ‘Closing ethnicity awarding gaps’. Opening the event, Professor Charles Egbu, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds Trinity University, stressed that the mission of providers shouldn’t just be to close those gaps: it is the sector’s moral and ethical responsibility to eliminate them.

This spring has also seen the publication of two key reports from TASO, the independent organisation funded by the Office for Students to promote strategies for the elimination of learner attainment gaps. Those reports – one focused on ethnicity and the other on disability – have once more underlined the urgency of action in these areas, and have returned these issues to their proper prominence in higher education policy agendas and debates.

These challenges have meanwhile been making headlines in the HE sector news.

Jim Dickinson has, for example, argued that the failure to make the adjustments necessary to eliminate such gaps can sometimes seem nothing short of scandalous. Such gaps may be the consequence not only of the failings of course design and delivery to accommodate diverse groups of learners, but may also result from the cultural contexts perpetuated by providers, including, as Henley Business School’s Melissa Carr has recently supposed, a tolerance of both conscious and unconscious biases and microaggressions in campus settings – leading to calls, for example, from researchers at Nottingham Trent University that staff be trained in the pronunciation of the names of students from diverse backgrounds.

And, as providers have been looking to refresh their Access and Participation Plans, London South Bank University’s Professor Tony Moss has pointed out that the impacts of awarding gaps tend to be exacerbated by completion gaps, and are often therefore even worse than initial figures may suggest, while Elle Shea has explored some of the key approaches to eliminating them.

At the same time, we at QAA have been preparing a new resource which highlights the continuing challenges the sector faces in relation to these gaps, as well as practical approaches that may be taken to eliminate them – such as the exposure and circumvention of the normative assumptions of the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’.

Yet TASO itself has supposed the higher education sector sometimes lacks the confidence and resources needed to address these issues and has suggested the approaches to date can be characterized by a lack of innovation, uncertainty, and failures to secure consistent and universal commitment from staff. QAA’s work in this area has sought to draw together sectoral strategies to bolster provers’ confidence through a broad-based, integrated resource.

Data from the Office for Students’ Access and Participation Data Dashboard and from the independent Ethnic Representation Index suggest that, since the height of the Covid-19 crisis, these problems have only been deepening – with, for example, the proportion of black students at English providers gaining upper awards standing at 19.3 percentage points below that of white students during academic year 2022-23.

Attainment gaps related to indices of economic deprivation have also continued to increase, and these have of course been deepened by the cost-of-living crisis.

It’s not, however, all doom and gloom. It should be noted that significant reductions in continuation and awarding gaps for disabled students have suggested that provider initiatives in these areas can bear real fruit. Indeed, certain providers have demonstrated that this is already enhancing graduate employment outcomes.

Even so, concerns have recently been raised about the post-pandemic return to on-campus provision by those who had benefited most from an emphasis on virtual learning.

It therefore appears vital that sector bodies and sectoral policies support providers in the evaluation of attainment gap strategies, and in the implementation of the most successful and cost-effective interventions, as well as the promotion of platforms and fora for the discussion and sharing of such approaches.

This is why our new resource offers educators, strategists and policymakers a clear and accessible tool which maps areas of effective practice at key stages in the student journey: through points of transition, classroom culture, assessment design and preparing for the world of work.

Initiatives in these areas have included projects to tackle unconscious bias and to promote inclusivity and optionality in assessment, student-focused guides to assessment, credit, academic integrity and learning outcomes, and inclusive approaches to embedding employability and cultural capital, as well as strategies to foster diverse student engagement and partnership, equity of the learner experience and that elusive yet invaluable sense of belonging to a learning community.

The sector experts with whom we’ve consulted in the development of this resource tend to agree on a number of key points: the importance of addressing attainment gaps throughout the entire student life cycle through nuanced data-driven approaches which can prompt timely and focused interventions to support specific courses and individuals; the need to develop and empower staff in understanding and addressing these gaps; and the value of student engagement in helping providers comprehend the causes of these gaps and in the development and evaluation of ways to resolve them.

Our resource flags up from across the sector more than 100 resources which can contribute to enhanced practices and impacts in this area. There is, in short, a varied array of interventions out there to help hone the ongoing development of strategies to eliminate those awarding gaps, approaches which should only benefit from the sharing of this collective wisdom.

The success of these diverse initiatives suggests that, without seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all approach, providers may benefit from sector-wide participation in exchanges of knowledge and ideas, and that these processes may afford them opportunities to develop their own palettes of approaches appropriate to the needs of their particular disciplinary specialisms, regional contexts and student bodies.

Furthermore. it seems clear that, at a time of extraordinary financial pressures and technological opportunities and challenges, providers would benefit from additional support to prioritize these key strategies, as we come to realize the essential economic – and wider societal – advantages of a truly diverse and inclusive skilled workforce.

The resource referred to in the text is accessible at this link.

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1 comment

  1. Rod Bristow says:

    Could you explain why the term ‘awarding gap’ is used in preference to ‘attainment gap’? My concern is that by ‘softening’ the term, the problem is less likely to be addressed. Thank you for writing a blog on a very important issue.

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