We’ve known for years about the gap between how well black and white students do, so let’s do something different about it

There is stark evidence that there is a gap between how well black and minority ethnic students do at university and the performance of their white peers. The most up to date stats show a gap of 28 percentage points between black and white students in terms of receiving firsts or 2:1s at university. Yet despite the fact that this evidence has been around for a while, the gap doesn’t seem to be closing.

Universities and politicians agree that this is a sticky issue, and there have been calls for concrete and sustainable solutions to address the gap. This has been a long time coming because some issues relating to student performance are deeply embedded in the fabric of our society, and play out as conscious and unconscious biases in our institutions.

The Guardian’s recent series on bias attests to how this can affect people at every level of society. Yet many myths persist within universities as to why the BAME attainment gap persists. For example, I have often heard that BAME students underperform in education because they lack confidence compared to their white counterparts. But when census data was reviewed by the Runnymede Trust, it showed that BAME students marginally surpass their white peers at GCSE level.

So what’s going wrong? Experienced researchers in this area, such as Prof Jacqueline Stevenson, who heads research at Sheffield Institute of Education, found that BAME students feel just as confident as their peers at university. The main difference is a sense of entitlement to its support services, resources and opportunities, she found. If a lack of confidence is not the problem, it appears that the presence or absence of a sense of privilege might be playing a larger role.

In my experience as a lecturer, universities aren’t doing enough to listen to the lived experiences of BAME staff and students. I attended several talks that have discussed the attainment gap: they were primarily aimed at (mainly white) widening participation staff tasked by their universities with “fixing the problem”. On the occasions that BAME staff or students were present at these events, they often functioned as “bystanders”, with few opportunities to participate in discussions. This was compounded by the use of confusing university policy jargon.

I’ve found that many BAME students and staff have grown weary of the usual initiatives aimed at improving race equality in universities, such as mentoring, which can feel tokenistic. We know that nothing will change unless these initiatives are part of a comprehensive strategy for equality, diversity and inclusivity that is owned and driven by senior managers.

These strategies must be tailored to the individual institution and its culture, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, what might be suitable for a university with a large BAME student population (such as London Metropolitan) might be less applicable to a university on the fringes of London with a different student intake, such as Roehampton.

The strategic approach should involve the staff and students it affects, and focus on the specific barriers to attainment. A good example is Kingston University’s inclusive curriculum framework. This makes eradicating race inequality a priority across all parts of the university, from curriculum design to teaching to assessment.

Where universities aren’t able to develop their own frameworks, engaging with the Race Equality Charter is a step forward. This requires universities to recognise race inequality and its impact through data, and develop robust plans for action to sustain long-term culture change.

As an evaluation panellist for the Race Equality Charter, the best submissions I’ve seen have shown a commitment by senior managers to advance and embed race equality at every level of the institution; to work with the local population to improve the university’s relationship with the community; to level the playing field for staff recruitment and promotion; and, as well as student attainment, to review teaching and learning to provide a more inclusive curriculum and experience.

It’s clear that we shouldn’t just be “minding” the gap. We should be peering into it with a powerful microscope to rescue the student and staff population that has fallen into it. As a university sector, let’s make this our goal for 2019.

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