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:

Image may contain: 1 person, standing

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

Designing and Delivering a Quality HE Curriculum – some takeaways

By Gabi Witthaus, Learning & Teaching Facilitator, School of Business & Economics, Loughborough University.

On 3 March I attended the Inside Gov event in London, “Designing and Delivering a Quality HE Curriculum”, wearing my SBE Learning & Teaching Facilitator hat. Here I summarise my key take-aways from the day.

Alan Palmer, Head of Policy and Research, Million+, opened the event. He briefly reflected on the status of the Green Paper for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), noting that he expected the Government to report back on responses received to the Green Paper in around mid-May – with the rationale that the release of this report would be timed to occur after the local elections but before the referendum on the EU.

Dr Tim Burton, Head of Standards, Quality and Enhancement, Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), was first up. He expressly did not talk about the TEF, and instead focused on the QAA’s Quality Code for awards and programmes, with its three component parts – Part A on academic standards, Part B on academic quality, and Part C on information about higher education provision. Part A contains the Subject Benchmark Statements, many of which are currently being reviewed. Tim noted that the statements are not prescriptive and do not form a curriculum; however, he said providers are “encouraged to take account of them”. My take-away: the resources on the QAA website are extremely useful, if not essential, for anyone designing programmes or modules.

Prof. Pauline Kneale, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) and Professor of Pedagogy and Enterprise, Plymouth University, gave a keynote on instilling flexibility within curriculum assessment. This was the highlight of the day for me. Pauline discussed how her institution had begun approaching assessment from the point of view of making assessments accessible to students with disabilities. Instead of merely offering modified versions of the mainstream assessments for students with particular needs, course teams at Plymouth looked at ways of changing the assessment to be accessible to everyone, and in the process began devising more authentic assessments (i.e. relevant to real-world situations) that encouraged deeper learning than traditional forms of assessments. The resources on Plymouth’s website contain guidelines, models and evidence-based examples of good practice in this area – a good place to start is with the Staff Good Practice Guide to Inclusive Assessment.

Chris Willmore, Academic Director of Undergraduate Studies and Reader in Sustainability and Law, University of Bristol spoke passionately about listening to the student voice in curriculum change. In an initiative at Bristol, students can pop into the Students’ Union to have a conversation with other students (not lecturers), in plain English, about what kinds of changes they would like to see in their various curricula. Whacky ideas are encouraged. A toolkit is provided for students to enable students convert their ideas into proposals for academic staff to consider – this requires students to rigorously map any new intended learning outcomes onto subject benchmark statements and professional body requirements.

Next, Dr Momodou Sallah, Senior Lecturer in Youth Work and Community Development, De Montfort University, talked about international study visits as transformative pedagogy. He gave a fascinating account of how De Montfort students were benefiting from field trips to the Gambia, and showed a very moving video (available here) of this cross-cultural exchange.

Dr Maria Cerrato Lara, Lead Researcher, ‘Learning Gain in Active Citizenship’ Research Project, Oxford Brookes University, continued the internationalisation theme by focusing on an HEA-funded initiative at Oxford Brookes in which ‘Active Citizenship’ was introduced as a graduate attribute for all taught courses.

Professor Peter Lawler, Academic Director, University College for Interdisciplinary Learning, University of Manchester, spoke about  enriching the curriculum through interdisciplinary learning. He discussed the frequent misconceptions held about interdisciplinarity, for example the idea that simply combining modules from two or more disciplines equates to an interdisciplinary curriculum. Manchester University launched their University College for Interdisciplinary Learning (UCIL) in 2012, and this group supports programme teams across the institution in designing interdisciplinary courses. He emphasised the importance of starting out with the programme aims in mind, rather than starting from the vision of modules as ‘building blocks’ that could be combined to magically create a truly integrated programme.

Fiona Harvey, Education Development Manager, ILIaD, University of Southampton and Chair, Association for Learning Technology (ALT), spoke about an initiative at Southampton whereby a number of students took the opportunity to receive support and advice in learning about technology for learning, and those students then worked closely with their lecturers to redesign curricula to embed learning technologies. She gave several arguments for this being a more effective way of curriculum change than simply working with academics – to name a couple: if students themselves have ‘bought into’ a particular technology, they are more likely to use it; and secondly, academics generally appreciate having a student in the classroom who is willing to help if the technology goes wrong, and to support other students in using it.

Dr Neil Gordon, Author, Flexible Pedagogies: Technology-Enhanced Learning Report, from the University of Hull, spoke about  integrating technology effectively to support flexible learning at Hull. He discussed the rationale for making learning more flexible for students, and talked about the implications, e.g. ethical and security concerns associated with the use of technologies. He also proposed flexible forms of assessment (for example, giving students a choice between an exam and an assignment; allowing students to propose the format of their own assessments) as a natural consequence of flexible teaching delivery.

Dr Crinela Pislaru, Senior Lecturer, University of Huddersfield, gave a case study on enhancing employability for STEM students through peer-based mentoring. In this case study, undergraduate students in electrical and mechanical engineering courses were mentored by postgraduate students from the Institute of Railway Research. Students were given practical projects to do in groups, with their mentors, and were required to reflect together regularly on the effectiveness of their teamwork.This experience was a valuable addition to students’ CVs.

Finally, Professor Michael Thorne, Vice-Chancellor, Anglia Ruskin University, spoke on the topic of embedding work-based learning into the curriculum to improve employability prospects. He described an initiative at Anglia Ruskin called Degrees@Work, in which entire degrees are offered at workplaces, jointly managed and run by the university and the employers. Their commercial partners include Barclays, Specsavers and Harrods, with degrees in banking, optometry, and retail respectively. He presented this business model as a win-win situation for all concerned – students do not have to pay fees, while the employers pay premium fees to the university for bespoke programmes. He also discussed a self-employment programme running at Anglia Ruskin, in which students are given support and encouragement to start up their own businesses.

All in all, it was a full programme with many thought-provoking ideas to take away. All slides from the event are available here.

Designing and Delivering a Quality HE Curriculum – some takeaways by Gabi Witthaus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.By Gabi Witthaus, Learning & Teaching Facilitator, School of Business & Economics, Loughborough University.


Degrees of value depend on student engagement

In a recent post Chris Millward, Director for Policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), summarised the findings and recommendations of a Which? report into Higher Education, placing it within the context of the HEFCEs own work. Millward begins with a note of caution, contrasting the reports “relatively small” sample size (the undergraduate survey, conducted by YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 1023 first and second year undergraduates online) to the National Student Survey (NSS), which last year received 320,000 responses of which 86% reported they were satisfied or strongly satisfied with their course. Even this figure, Millward concedes, still “leaves a significant minority who weren’t satisfied” and that while “there is good work going on…there is room for improvement”. Continue reading

Value for money? Student perceptions

Every winter the Government sets out the annual funding for higher education in a letter to HEFCE. This letter outlines the funds that are available for allocation, alongside any government priorities. One of the priorities in the latest letter is that the sector makes greater progress in delivering efficiencies, as “students will rightly expect value for the fees they pay”.

A question arising from this is what do students define as value for money?

An insight is provided by a research project led by Dr Camille Kandiko from King’s College London. The project aimed to explore the views of students entering higher education in the UK in 2012-13, and to investigate their perceptions and expectations about the quality of their learning experience and the academic standards of their chosen programmes of study.

In regard to value for money, the report identified three criteria used by students:

Embodiment of value: Contact time
The primary way students referenced issues of quality and value in their degree was through contact time.

Tangible value: Resources
The resources the institution offered and what additional costs students faced were summarised as ‘what do you get for what you pay’.

Return on investment
The reputational value of a degree, their subject and that of the institution.

GPA: An alternative to degree classifications?

It is well recognised that there are limitations and issues in the use of the UK honours degree classification system (e.g. current grade classifications do not provide sufficient information to distinguish between graduates). The adoption of a single GPA system, as commonly used in many countries, could provide key benefits including a finer granularity of detail in a summative representation of student achievement than the current classification system, and helping to further engage students in their course of study.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) is facilitating a national discussion on the use of a GPA system, as a possible addition or alternative to the honours degree classification system in UK higher education. The aims of the GPA programme of work are to:

  • explore the potential use of a GPA model and the issues that arise through its use in a range of institutional contexts
  • raise awareness and enhance understanding across and beyond the higher education sector of the issues relating to the potential adoption of GPA as a cumulative and summative measure of student achievement, ‘in tandem’ with, or as an alternative to, the honours degree classification system.

As part of this programme in 2013-14, the HEA is facilitating a GPA pilot involving a diverse group of 21 higher education providers from across the UK. Through this pilot work, these institutions are being supported to explore the use of a proposed GPA scale within their current context. Institutions are looking at key areas, including:

  • the acceptability of the proposed scale in relation to institutional provision and its robustness in comparison with the current system
  • preferred institutional approaches to progression weighting with GPA
  • operational issues relating to the reporting of student results and dual running of GPA alongside degree classification.

Attendance monitoring: the effect on the culture of learning


Many Universities across the world are strengthening their class attendance policies. In the UK it is a legal requirement to monitor the ‘engagement’ of some types of international students, but many institutions have also extended this monitoring to all types of students.

Drawing on university policy statements, a paper by Macfarlane (2013) identifies implicit arguments underpinning attendance requirements for students in higher education. These include:

  • demonstrating the accountability of publicly funded higher education
  • a concern for the pastoral and academic welfare of students
  • preparation for expectations associated with workplace and professional practice.

Macfarlane argues that judging whether an educational experience has been ‘successful’ or not has little to do with attendance records. Rather, in a world of learning outcomes, it is about whether a student succeeds in achieving good grades and an intrinsically worthwhile educational experience.

While acknowledging the evidence that there is a positive correlation between attendance and achievement, Macfarlane argues that institutions need to think through the wider implications of implementing attendance monitoring procedures and the effect they can have on the culture of learning at university.

He claims that attendance policies promote presenteeism as part of the discourse of learnerism. Such rules, it is claimed, further infantilise students rather than developing their capacity to make informed choices as adults.


Macfarlane, B. (2013), The Surveillance of Learning: A Critical Analysis of University Attendance Policies. Higher Education Quarterly, 67: 358–373. doi: 10.1111/hequ.12016

HEA call for proposals for research into “The impact of the shifting UK HE landscape on learning and teaching”

HEA logoThe HEA has just put out a call for proposals for new research relating to their theme of “The impact of the shifting UK HE landscape on learning and teaching” the aim of the research is to “seek to understand, discuss and debate the impact on learning and teaching and the student experience in higher education of the recent significant changes in UK higher education policy”

There are a number of strands that can be addressed:

  • How has the status of teaching changed in institutions in the context of an increased emphasis on teaching excellence in national HE policy?;
  • Are there any early signs that the diversification and reconfiguration of higher education providers is resulting in an improved student learning experience?;
  • Transitions into undergraduate education from schools and colleges and returning adult learners;
  • The changing nature of postgraduate study: how, if at all, might curriculum and the support of learning for postgraduate (PGT and PGR) provision be changing?;
  • Foundation degrees and work-based learning;
  • Barriers to part-time learning in the new HE landscape.

Proposals can be up to a maximum of £20,000 and the HEA expected to fund five projects in total. The deadline for the proposals is 10 January 2014 and all work must be completed by 31st March 2015.

For full details go to the HEA website at:

Which?/HEPI, "The Student Academic Experience Survey"


Which? has partnered with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) to conduct “The Student Academic Experience Survey”, the findings from which were released last month. In addition to a Which? report that goes into some depth regarding a range of issues (including contact time, types of contact, feedback, attendance, private study, etc.), there is also a HEPI summary available that concentrates on ‘Contact with academic staff’, ‘Total Study Time’, and ‘Satisfaction’. Further information is available via the HEPI website.

Graham Gibbs on study skills

THE logoThe third piece in this series – this time under the heading “Raising awareness of best-practice pedagogy” – has recently been published by the Times Higher Education. Once more, Graham Gibbs has presented us with another insightful and accessible article, this time asking what study skills consist of and whether they can be learned by students. His conclusions are particularly interesting: “Skills have to serve the purposes associated with these evolving concep­tions of knowledge and of learning: without appropriate ­purposes, the skills can be worse than useless”.