Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward

Image: Universities UK

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is an international success story. UK universities attract global talent, valuable income and investment, produce world-leading research, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and improve people’s everyday lives in countless ways. Britain’s universities are also more racially and culturally diverse than ever before.

But a recent report has shone a spotlight on fundamental barriers to racial equality at UK universities, indicating that a student’s race and ethnicity can significantly affect their degree outcomes. The Universities UK (UUK) / National Union of Students (NUS) report highlights significant gaps in attainment between white students and their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) peers, finding that 81% of white students graduated with first and upper second class honours in 2017/18, compared to just 68% of BAME students. That’s an attainment gap of 13%.

The report echoes findings from the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England. Earlier this year, the OfS reported stark gaps in achievement for black students, and also found that higher numbers of BAME students were dropping out of university before completing their courses.

Why are BAME students not doing as well at university compared with their white counterparts?

The UUK/NUS research identified four factors that are contributing to the attainment gap:

  1. Varying degrees of satisfaction among different student groups with the higher education curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and among students: a sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  3. Recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  4. The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable.

 How universities can improve outcomes

As part of its research, UUK and NUS engaged with students, the higher education sector and external organisations to identify the most significant steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  1. Strong leadership – university leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing the culture – universities and students need more opportunities to have open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and what is causing the attainment gap.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments – A greater focus is needed from across the sector, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, and an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement and progression to postgraduate study.
  4. Assess the existing mix of data and evidence used to understand the causes of the attainment gap – The sector needs to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap, gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than currently, in order to inform discussions among university leaders, academics, practitioners and students.

The report also provides a checklist to help university senior leaders to move forward with their own strategies. Among the actions on the checklist are:

  • consider whether coaching, development opportunities or programmes are needed to give leaders the confidence to talk about race and take a leading role in opening conversations.
  • consider mechanisms for recognising (and perhaps rewarding) staff and students who press for the removal of racial inequalities.
  • take responsibility for ensuring that appropriate resources are dedicated to removing the attainment gap, including for any appropriate tailored interventions, research and expertise in data analysis.

Learning from what works

Another important recommendation in the report is that universities should share and learn from evidence of what works and what does not. Case studies throughout the report demonstrate that higher education institutions across the country are trying to close the attainment gap:

The University of Manchester and the university’s students’ union have been working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham to deliver a Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme to tackle the causes of differential outcomes for BAME undergraduate students and those from low socio-economic groups. Key features include creation of safe spaces, where students and staff can engage in open dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching environments, academic support and well-being; and training student ambassadors to safely challenge racism, microaggressions and discrimination.

Intercultural awareness workshops have helped students at Glasgow Caledonian University to develop a better understanding of different cultural norms and values. The programme provides a baseline for first-year students to develop their understanding and recognise the unconscious bias that exists within global academic, social and working environments. It has already won a Student Engagement Award and been shortlisted for an NUS Scotland 2019 diversity award.

The University of Arts London has developed a data dashboard – the academic enhancement model (AEM) – which gives accessible information to course teams about all aspects of the student experience and differentials. The AEM is a cross-university approach to removing attainment differentials, based on agreed data thresholds for attainment and student satisfaction scores. Courses that fall below these thresholds work with AEM leads to create co-designed AEM support packages. The approach has contributed to UAL’s success in tackling attainment issues: in 2018, the university saw a 4.9% reduction in its BAME attainment gap.

Closing the gap, reaping the rewards

The report has united universities and students in highlighting the race attainment gap, understanding the reasons behind it and tackling the problem.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who co-led the report, said: “Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap. Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president for higher education, added that for far too long universities had presided over significant gaps in attainment between BAME students and white students. “From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years.

Now that the issue has been raised, it’s up to universities to take action so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the many rewards that higher education can bring.


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University challenges: excellence, inclusion and the race to win more funding

In May last year, Manchester University announced plans to make 171 staff redundant. Cost savings were among the reasons for the staff cutbacks, but the university also highlighted other factors, including the need for improvements in the quality of its research and student experience to ensure financial sustainability, and to achieve its ambition to be a world leading institution.

Although Manchester was able to achieve its staff reductions through voluntary severance, other universities have also had to announce staff cutbacks,  including Portsmouth, Liverpool, Heriot-Watt and Southampton. And these institutions are not alone in facing such demanding challenges.

Higher education institutions across the UK are competing against each other and against international rivals to attract funding and students. At the same time, universities, particularly among the prestigious Russell Group institutions, are under pressure to increase participation by more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this is set against a background of debates about value for money in higher education, and concerns about Brexit. It’s no surprise that many universities are worried about their future.

Competition: national…

Recent changes to the higher education sector, such as the removal of the cap on student numbers, the entry of private sector providers, and the introduction of a teaching excellence framework have driven universities to become more competitive. Some have built new facilities, or joined forces with business to create technology parks, while others have closed departments that are expensive to run, such as modern languages. A growing number are also turning to financial markets to fund their expansion plans.

…and international

While UK universities have a world-class reputation, they face strong competition from overseas institutions. This year’s world university rankings reported that of the 76 UK universities in the worldwide top 1000, 41 improved their position since last year, while 14 remained in the same position. But while this was the best ever UK performance the compilers of the rankings warned that rising class sizes and the UK’s ability to attract overseas students post-Brexit could have a negative impact on future placings. It’s also becoming clear that global league tables themselves are having an impact on universities.

Added to this, the uncertainty over Brexit is already having an impact on university research funding. Official figures published at the end of 2017 showed that there had been a downturn in both UK participation in, and funding from, the flagship Horizon 2020 project. The need to find alternative sources of funding is pressing, as can be seen in the success of RESEARCHconnect, a tool to help universities identify and manage funding opportunities.

The struggle to widen participation

The proportion of people going to university has risen dramatically in the past fifty years. In the 1960s, five per cent of young people went into higher education; today, around half of young people do. Universities have committed themselves to widen participation, but the statistics suggest they are struggling to achieve this, particularly concerning students from BAME and disadvantaged communities.

Figures published earlier this year recorded a 0.1 percentage point increase in the proportion of state-educated students who started full-time undergraduate courses in the autumn of 2016, compared with the previous year. The statistics showed a slight rise in the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas, but critics have argued that this was cancelled out by the fall in part-time students (who are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds). In nine out of the 24 Russell Group of universities, the proportion of state school pupils fell.

Further evidence of the country’s leading universities’ difficulties in widening participation has been brought to light by David Lammy MP. His enquiries on the number of ethnic minority students offered a place at Oxford and Cambridge Universities have found that more than a third of Oxford’s colleges admitted three or fewer black applicants between 2015 and 2017. For each of the six years between 2010 and 2015, on average, a quarter of Cambridge University colleges failed to make any offers to black British applicants.

Moving away from “one size fits all”

The government says it is determined to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education. In 2018, the new Office for Students (OfS) was launched, merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access. The OfS aims to regulate higher education in the same way that bodies such as Ofwat and Ofcom regulate the water and telecoms sectors. Its Director of Fair Access and Participation has a particular remit to ensure that higher education institutions are doing all they can to support under-represented groups.

A 2018 report has suggested that the OfS “has the potential to be an agent of profound change, particularly with regard to widening participation.” Among the reports contributors, there was a consensus that widening participation needs to be thought of with a broader scope:

“…‘one size fits all’ solutions will not work if we wish to make higher education representative of the diverse society it serves. Different groups such as care leavers, refugees or those with physical disabilities or mental health problems have different needs, and support should be tailored accordingly.”

Changing the face of higher education

Clearly higher education is facing enormous challenges. But for staff and students of universities, there are concerns about the forces of change that are transforming universities from communities of learners and scholars into businesses.  Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has commented:

“If the driving ethos, the thing which directs your behaviour day on day is maximising your income, maximising your position in the league tables in order to maximise your reputation and your fees, that means that you behave in a way that is very different from a traditional university where that wasn’t the driving force. You do get the sense that if that is 90 per cent of what is being thought about by central management, you are fundamentally changing the institution.”

Time will tell whether those changes are for better or for worse.


RESEARCHconnect supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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Equal to the task? Addressing racial inequality in public services

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Throughout October, a series of events to promote diversity and equality will take place as part of Black History Month. Although there are many achievements to celebrate, it is an unfortunate fact that many people in the UK today still experience disadvantage due to the colour of their skin.

Over the summer, reports by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), found that racial inequality in the UK was ‘worryingly high’.

In its biggest ever review of race inequality in the UK, the EHRC concluded that:

“while for certain people life has become fairer over the past five years, for others progress has stalled and for some– in particular young Black people – life on many fronts has got worse.”

Audit of racial disparities announced

The government responded quickly by announcing an audit of racial disparities in public services. It promises to ‘shine a light on injustices as never before’.

From summer 2017, Whitehall departments will be required to identify and publish information annually on outcomes for people of different backgrounds in areas such as health, education, childcare, welfare, employment, skills and criminal justice.

As well as enabling the public to check how their race affects the way they are treated by public services, the data is also intended to help force services to improve.

The audit is being called ‘unprecedented’ – and it certainly is – up until now, public services in the UK have not systematically gathered data for the purposes of racial comparison. Indeed, according to the FT, very few countries, if any at all, currently produce racial impact audits.

‘Worryingly high’ levels of racial inequality

The audit will have its work cut out.  The review by the EHRC found that, compared to their White counterparts, people from ethnic minorities were more likely to be:

  • unemployed
  • on low wages and/or in insecure employment
  • excluded from school
  • less qualified
  • living in poverty
  • living in substandard and/or overcrowded accommodation
  • experiencing mental and physical health problems
  • in the criminal justice system
  • stopped and searched by police
  • a victim of hate crime
  • a victim of homicide

Institutional racism

Similarly, the CERD findings into how well the UK is meeting its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) raised serious concerns about the level of institutional racism in UK public services. Omar Khan, of the Runnymede Trust, suggested that the findings would ‘embarrass the UK on the world stage’.

Longstanding inequalities in access to services, the quality of care received and patients’ health outcomes were criticised, as was the over-representation of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in psychiatric institutions.

The committee echoed the EHRC’s concerns regarding higher unemployment rates and the concentration of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in insecure and low-paid work.  They also criticised the use of discriminatory recruitment practices by employers.

In education, there were concerns regarding reports of racist bullying and harassment in schools, and the lack of balanced teaching about the history of the British Empire and colonialism, particularly with regard to slavery.

The committee also concluded that there had been an outbreak of xenophobia and discrimination against ethnic minorities, particularly since the EU referendum campaign.  Indeed, the rise in post-Brexit racial tensions has been widely acknowledged.

Equal to the task?

Although the audit has been welcomed by many, including the EHRC, others have raised concern about the extent to which it will tackle the root of the problem.  Danny Dorling, of Oxford University, remains sceptical, stating that “within two or three years every single one of these audits is forgotten”.

Some have noted that in order to be effective, the audit will also have to capture outcomes for migrant families, and for poorer White people, who also suffer from discrimination and disadvantage.  Others, including Labour’s Angela Rayner, shadow equalities minister, have noted that there is a ‘huge gap’ in the review as it would not include the private sector.

The EHRC have called upon the government to createa comprehensive, coordinated and long-term strategy to achieve race equality, with stretching new targets to improve opportunities and deliver clear and measurable outcomes.”

Certainly, the data produced by the racial equality audit may well provide some basis for the establishment of such targets.

So while this October there is cause for celebrating the progress made so far, the findings of the EHRC and the CERD underline just how entrenched and far-reaching race inequality remains.  As the EHRC states:

“We must tackle this with the utmost urgency if we are to heal the divisions in our society and prevent an escalation of tensions between our communities.”


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