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

Which seat do you take on the learning tandem?

The tandem takes centre stage in illustrating a key question in the partnership of learning:  which seat do each of us give our learners and which do we take for ourselves?

The analogy formed part of Marcia Baxter Magolda’s talk at a recent Lifewide Learning event in London, where the conference artist illustrated her thoughts.


Professor Magolda asked the question of academics and institutions alike – which seat do you give your learners?

On the tandem, she reminded the audience, the person at the front directs the learning whilst the one at the back gives fuel in terms of supporting power and impetus. It reflects well the partnership of learning and the role of the academic in ‘transformational learning.’ Here the learner is empowered to develop knowledge through employing their own skills to research and reflect.  In this way, through effective learning partnerships, the learner learns how to steer (self-author) their route through life with the support and impetus of the back-seat academic.

Dr Magolda’s longitudinal study following students into and beyond university education over 25 years is one of the most established such research projects. It has led to her developing learning partnership and self-authorship theories.

Taking a back seat is in her view, a powerful position to be in, and not one in which we can coast if we are developing independent, focused graduates.


NewswordyWith today’s word being ‘cognizant‘, I thought that it was time to share the Newswordy web resource with T&L Blog, err, aficionados.

In defining their latest posting (i.e. ‘cognizant’) as an adjective meaning “having knowledge or being aware of”, this site – which I’ve only come across in recent weeks – goes on to offer a recent use of this term in the media. Thus, for this particular word, it reads: “Republicans, cognizant of Americans’ slow recovery from the 2007-2009 recession, also have focused on poverty-reduction but they favor a dramatically smaller government role. — Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal & David Lawder, Reuters“.

The Newswordy site says of itself: “Buzzwords are frequently used in news media. These are words that do not typically occur in everyday speech, but are common among newscasters, talking heads, and pundits on cable news. These ‘news words’ are accepted by audiences for their implied meaning. But often loaded words are misused or used out of context. The actual definitions can be different than what is implied. Newswordy is a growing collection of these words, updated every weekday. Along with each word is a definition, a quote with its use (or misuse) in the media, and a news and Twitter feed on the subject.”

Many of the reference points are American, so do be careful of spelling. Indeed, we wouldn’t want to create a furore! But, that being said, lovers of language and its contemporary use may want to subscribe … and, of course, during the course of the day deploy.

Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

Nature journal logoThe journal Nature has this week published an interesting comment piece aimed specifically at educating politicians about the scientific approach to data but which could just as easily be used for many different types of data.  The “twenty tips” are as useful in helping us remember how to judge educational data and to avoid simple conclusions to complex issues.

Of the twenty tips worth thinking about with regard to education, I highlight the following:

Differences and chance cause variation –  when students sit their assessments makes a difference, remember the hayfever season!

No measurement is exact – as the article says, “practically all measurements have some errors. If the measurement process were repeated, one might record a different result”

Bias is rife – think about what assessments (for example) you are setting and for whom. How will this affect the outcomes?

Extrapolating beyond the data is risky – how many times have we read that a whole area of the curriculum/cohort of students is view in the same way?

Scientists are human – they have vested interests in promoting a specific position – also applies to academics, managers, probably everyone!

Read the whole article and see what you think.