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

Changes are a-coming in Disabled Students’ Allowances

This blog post has been contributed by Karisa Krcmar from the Counselling and Disability Service at Loughborough University.

Image of students in a lecture theatreI am a little hesitant about writing about disability legislation and cuts in funding in a month Centre for Academic Practice have dedicated to inclusive learning.

In an ideal word there would be no need to talk about adjustments in teaching or assessments because teaching and assessment and learning would all be … well, inclusive.

A disability, or medical, model of teaching puts the emphasis on the individual: this person has a particular problem and so we, as an institution, have to make special arrangements to adapt to this individual so that he or she can reach his or her potential.  We have a bumpy playing field and we engage someone else to build a raised pathway across it for a recognised individual.  At the same time, there are other players, without a recognised difficulty, but for a whole variety of reasons, they are struggling to cope with those bumps.  They get ignored.  Then … guess what?  The funding for the raised pathway is withdrawn and the cost of maintenance reverts to the owners of the field.  The best response to this might take a bit of thought and planning, but why not just level off the whole playing field, making it accessible for all players whatever their individual strengths and weaknesses.

This, in effect, is the scenario we are facing in the HE sector.

The Equality Act 2010 requires us to make reasonable adjustments for disabilities.  The law defines disability as:

“A physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term effect on a  person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

This includes:

  • Physical disabilities
  • Sensory impairments (visual impairment, hearing impairment)
  • Mental health difficulties (even if these are no longer ‘present’)
  • Specific learning differences (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, etc.)
  • Autistic spectrum disorders
  • A number of medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma, ME, epilepsy
  • HIV, cancer, MS (from the point of diagnosis)
  • Severe disfigurements

All the different services within the Counselling and Disability Service (mental health support team; study support service; counselling service; note taking service; disability office and needs assessment centre) work with students and departments to provide that pathway through the playing field and help departments to understand, and comply with, the law.  Students with disabilities have also been able to access a grant called Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) and this has paid for many of the services: for example, specialist study support and note taking.  This has allowed students to successfully access the curriculum and complete their degrees.

Changes are a-coming …

Funding is being seriously cut …

We don’t yet know the full implications …

We do know that the Equality Act of 2010 has not changed.

But we anticipate that funding the pathway will change from DSA to the university – i.e. your department and you will be asked to provide more in the way of support for your students.

Wouldn’t it be easier to spend the time now just to consider how you can level the whole playing field and make it more inclusive for all students?  Design for inclusivity; teach for inclusivity; assess for inclusivity and feedback for inclusivity.  That way, there will be real inclusive learning which embraces all students – it will be legally compliant but even better, it will be good planning, teaching and learning.

Know your learners

Wordle: accessibility

Did you know that there are approximately 200,000 students in HE who have a declared disability (DIUS,2009)? I was made aware of this in an online session about eLearning and accessibility.

As online content providers, it is our responsibility to ensure that we design resources which are as inclusive as possible. But how can we do this if we do not know much about the disabilities themselves? Here is a link to a site that contains a collection of simulations for various disabilities. It gives us a useful insight into the difficulties faced by these students.