Degree Attainment Gaps and New Research at Loughborough University

In this blog-post for the Centre for Academic Practice, Nuzhat Fatima, LSU Welfare and Diversity Executive Officer, discusses the Black and Minority Ethnic student attainment gap in UK higher education institutions, and introduces a new research project at Loughborough entitled ‘Experiences in the Classroom and Beyond: The Role of Race and Ethnicity’

What is the ‘degree attainment gap’?

The ‘degree attainment gap’ is often described as a national crisis within the education system. The Equality Challenge Unit describes the degree attainment gap as “the difference in ‘top degrees’ – a First or 2:1 classification – awarded to different groups of students. The largest divergence can be found between BME (Black Minority and Ethnic Students) and White British students. Leaving an education institution with lower grades has lifetime effects; this limits BME students into pursuing a potential post-graduate education where the requirements generally tend to be a 2:1 or above. Most graduate employers will require a 2:1 or above also.

The problem arises as many BME students enter university with the same grade classification as their white counterparts. However, BME students leave university with significantly lower grades in comparison to their white peers.

“In 2012/13, 57.1% of UK-domiciled BME students received a top degree when compared with 73.2% of White British students’ – an overall gap of 16.1%” (ECU).

Homogenising all minority students is unhelpful as they are a diverse group with differing outcomes. For example, Black and Caribbean students are the worst affected group at a national level. When observing the national breakdown of the BME category (2012/13), it can be seen that Black and Caribbean students are the most affected ethnic group. Students from Pakistani, Chinese and Indian backgrounds are also affected.

  • 4%of Indian students were awarded a top degree (a degree attainment gap of 8.8%)
  • 9%of Chinese students (a gap of 9.3%)
  • 2%of Pakistani students (a gap of 19.0%)
  • 8%of Black Other students (a gap of 29.4%)” (ECU).

A reliance on a meritocratic model to understand academic achievement has meant that the BME attainment gap was, and sometimes still is, framed as a problem caused by a limitation in the students themselves. This is also known as a deficit model. However, the attainment gap would not be a national problem if it were a meritocratic issue only. This raises the question of whether there are conditions within our educational institutions that negatively impact BME students both culturally and academically, and which contribute to the existence of the attainment gap.

Potential contributors

There is no sole contributor to the attainment gap. Multiple factors contribute to students being unable to reach their potential and attain a top degree. It can be due to geographical location, institutional insensitivity towards culture, a Euro-centric based curriculum, methods of assessment, and experiences of racism which go beyond the classroom and have a lasting impact on student life. Additionally, social interactions within clubs and societies can also impact on academic performance. These points are often dismissed as generalisations that potentially impact all students; however, to tackle the BME attainment gap one must consider how these factors work together in a negative way to disproportionately affect BME students.

What can be done? A way of tackling this is institution specific research, which does not homogenise institutions and lived experiences. Such research can become a catalyst for tackling the BME attainment gap on a structural and an institutional level.

What is Loughborough proposing to do?

 Loughborough prides itself on being an inclusive university and is aiming to tackle this national problem on an institutional level! Together with brilliant academics such as Dr Line Nyhagen (Reader in Sociology & School Champion Athena SWAN) and Dr James Esson (Lecturer in Human Geography), I have contributed to the proposal for a newly funded student led pedagogical research project. This research project will be carried out so that we as an institution can further our progress towards making education inclusive by raising standards and aspirations of all!

The project will examine BME and other students’ own learning experiences at Loughborough University in relation to the curriculum content and more broadly, including their take-up of individual consultations with lecturers, relationships with peers, and take-up of opportunities that can enhance their learning experience (e.g., student rep positions; student ambassador jobs).

I want to congratulate Loughborough University for putting diversity on the agenda and I am thrilled to have support from the University and the above academics who are committed to learning from the experiences of students in order to deliver the best education possible.

Information taken from the ECU:

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Nuzhat Fatima has been the Welfare and Diversity Executive Officer at Loughborough Students Union for 2016/17

CAP Forum: Research-informed curriculum design: successes and challenges

Our most recent CAP Forum focused on research-informed curriculum design. As a recent Research-informed Teaching Award winner, Dr Line Nyhagen took us through some of her wonderful successes and some of the challenges she has faced in four specific innovative teaching practices which were designed to enhance student engagement.

  • The first is a field visit to a local mosque in order to allow her students to understand ‘lived religion’, where she emphasised that it is important that the pedagogic intention of any field visit is clear. Previously, there had been no field visits in the Social Sciences Department, and so she sought advice from the Geography department on the basics and reflected on what went well and what she could improve after the first year of running the trip. The trip was very successful; the feedback from participating students was overwhelmingly positive, alongside a post on the department newsfeed talking of its success. However, the main challenge she faced was that the attendance on the trip was quite low. The following year, Line took on board feedback on that particular issue and added organised transport and included an assessment element related to the trip that was worth 10%, which dramatically increased the attendance.
  • The second example discussed was a ‘Coursework Topic Approval Forum’ which was used instead of a list of essays from students to select from. It involved students having to use a forum on Learn to get approval and feedback for their coursework title which could be about any topic they were interested in on the module. This fostered the sharing of ideas and allowed transparent formative feedback to be given to all students. Although this had many successes, it generated quite a lot of additional work for Line, and made a small proportion of students uncomfortable. Upon reflection, this year Line has chosen to produce both a list of essay titles and allow students to choose their own titles if they wish, nonetheless they must use the new general coursework forum for any questions related to coursework so that formative feedback continues to be shared among all students. A lot of the discussion afterwards focused on this area and suggested ideas such as having the group as a whole come up with the list of questions and queried why it was online and not in person in a session which was agreed would also work.
  • Line also spoke about ‘Memory Work’ as a method to teach gender and other identities, which is a research method she has used in her own research. This encouraged students to see themselves as both the researcher and the research subject, and allowing students to feel an ownership of the material being used to teach as it was generated by themselves. This in turn increased student engagement. This topic also generated lots of questions and discussion about how the technique could be applied to teaching in other areas, for example as an aid to reflecting on group assignments.
  • The final topic discussed was her ‘In-class Policy Awareness Event’ which she used as a new technique for increasing student engagement this year. She did this by trying to find topics directly relevant to her students, and this year chose sexual harassment policy due to the recent focus of the NUS on the topic, as well as it being one of her students’ dissertation topics last year. She took the students through the University’s Zero Tolerance policy, conducted research in-class using a quick SurveyMonkey questionnaire with results immediately available in the classroom. She also asked her students to come up with campaign ideas and proposals for increasing awareness, which was an identified problem. As an unintended consequence of this session, Line was able to take these suggestions to the Athena SWAN Team in her the school, which she leads. She has also shared the class findings and policy proposals with the Director of Student Services.

If you have any questions for Line about her experiences please feel free to contact her at or take a look at her twitter at @Line_Nyhagen. Alternatively, if you have any ideas of topics you would like to deliver on or hear about for future CAP Forums, please let us know by emailing Dr Glynis Perkin at or take a look at our Twitter at @LboroCAP.


Further Information:

The department’s newsfeed about the mosque visit:

A blog post related to Dr Line Nyhagen’s research:

Dr Line Nyhagen’s staff webpage:

Group work resources


Sometimes we need to be reminded of what we already have! A colleague was recently in touch regarding group work resources, and that set us to thinking. Indeed, it led us to conclude that there is a lot of good advice out there already from which we can draw.

For example, the Learnhigher Centre for Excellence in Teaching & Learning archive continues to function, and they have useful materials such as those regarding Learnhigher – Group Work. Indeed, the Teaching Centre continues to host Derek Blease’s seminal resource entitled Group and Team Work: A Guide for Staff on Learn, and we also deliver the Teaching Small Groups workshop in conjunction with Staff Development.

Obviously, it doesn’t stop there, indeed the Higher Education Academy (HEA) advice regarding Group Work (originally developed for use with international students), Jenny Moon’s HEA ESCalate (Education Subject Centre) publication entitled Making groups work, etc., are all worth considering as colleagues seek to develop student skills in terms of group work, individual responsibility, peer learning, communication skills, etc.

Audiovisual citation guidelines launched today

BUFVC logo

Have you ever wondered how to cite a television advert? Or what about an extra from a DVD? Do you ever need to provide advice to students or contributors about how to reference audiovisual content within their own work? The British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) has today launched a pioneering set of guidelines to help answer all these questions and more.

Despite the exponential increase in the use of audiovisual material in teaching, learning and research in higher and further education, existing guidelines for the referencing of moving image and sound are often insufficient as they are based on standards developed for the written word.

The newly launched guidelines are practical, accessible and applicable to a wide range of different users across all disciplines. They encourage best practice in citing any kind of audiovisual item and cover film; television programmes; radio programmes; audio recordings; DVD extras; clips; trailers; adverts; idents; non-broadcast, amateur and archive material; podcasts; vodcasts; and games.

In the era of YouTube, podcasts and vidcasts it is crucial for students, researcher and academics alike to be able to cite these sources clearly and ensure references can be traced back unambiguously.

A free interactive version of the guide is available to download from the BUFVC website:

[Adapted from BUFVC press release 03/04/13]

Critical thinking in the curriculum

How do you incorporate critical thinking into your teaching? What techniques do you use to promote critical thinking? Are you willing to share your ideas with colleagues?

Teaching Centre staff have recently begun work on the ‘Skills in the Curriculum’ project.  Focussing on the acquistion, development and assessment of critical thinking, the project aims to produce a number of resources which staff can use to support their students. The project will build on the ASPIRE project (which focussed on the development of academic skills in first year undergraduates within the Department of Politics, History and International Relations), and will offer a ‘toolkit’ of resources for departments and schools to use.

As an introduction to the project, watch this 2 minute video of Ian Bruff from PHIR talking about the importance of critical thinking within his teaching.


For more information, or to offer ideas for the project, contact Caroline Smith


Recording and rewarding student experience

In a bid to ensure its graduates are job ready, Keele University has recently introduced a ‘development strand’ to complement the academic curriculum. Facilitatated by a review of degree structures at the institution, the ‘development strand’ encourages students to reflect on their personal learning and evidence their development throughout their studies.

PBL in engineeringRather than a set of aspirational graduate attributes , the development strand at Keele enables students to evidence their skills development and gain accreditation from the Institute of Leadership and Management for their efforts.


For a fuller report see



Helping your students avoid common grammatical errors

As part of a larger project working with colleagues in PHIR, Teaching Centre staff have put together a resource which highlights the 10 most common punctuation/grammar errors. Aimed at first year students, the resource suggests pitfalls to avoid when beginning to write ‘in an academic style’ – something which many students find challenging. Although this version has been constructed usingscrap of paper showing commonly used abbreviations when texting discipline specific examples, other variants could easily be created if required.

See:                         scroll down to the last resource in block zero

Please let us know what you think.

The teaching and assessment of graduate attributes


What abilities do we want our students to be able to take away with them on graduation? Knowledge and expertise of their discipline area is one, but there is also a growing emphasis on the skills and attributes that will prepare them for work and life. In the UK, David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, has emphasised the need for graduates to have the right ‘technical’ skills to help them in employment. These sentiments are common to many governments across the globe, and there is now a growing body of research looking at graduate attributes and how they are taught and assessed.

One example is survey of academics across 16 Australian universities by Harpe and David (2012). They identified the following graduate attributes:

• Written Communication
• Independent learning
• Oral Communication
• Ethical Practice
• Problem solving
• Information literacy
• Critical thinking
• Information Communication Technology
• Teamwork

They found that 73% of academic staff surveyed believed the above attributes were important, but they also identified difficulties of integrating them into the curriculum. Strong beliefs and/or greater familiarity with graduate attributes amongst the academics in their sample did not necessarily translate into the successful teaching and assessment of these attributes on the ground.

Harpe and David argue that the route to success lies in policies and strategies that encourage a systemic whole-of-university approach, including going beyond what the formal curriculum can offer. Relying solely on individual academics and their ability to integrate attributes into the formal curriculum will not necessarily deliver university graduates equipped for the rapidly changing world of work.


Barbara de la Harpe & Christina David (2012): Major influences on the teaching and assessment of graduate attributes, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:4, 493-510

Interactive time management clock

As part of an ongoing project being undertaken in the Teaching Centre, an interactive time management clock has been developed to help students see how they spend their time.

Time Management Screenshot

You can save the resource to your own desktop as an html file and then customise as required or use the resource as it is.

Currently the clock is being trialled on a first year module in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations. If you try out the resource with your  students, please let me know how you get on.


Resource developed with help from Roger Stone, Department of Computer Science