There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
(from “Who Said It Was Simple”, by Audre Lorde, 1973)
As part of our broader commitment to promoting equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) in the curriculum, we have been looking at ways of supporting Schools and programmes in better understanding and responding to the BAME awarding gap. This has involved, among other things, surveying some of the recent research in this area and finding what this research can and cannot tell us about likely causes and recommended responses to the gap (see, for example: Miller, 2016; Arday and Mirza, 2018; NUS & UUK, 2019; Stevenson et al., 2019). John T.E. Richardson, for example, offers the following, rather sobering, closing remarks to his chapter in Arday and Mirza:
“The factors that are responsible for the ethnic differences in attainment that remain when differences in entry qualifications have been taken into account have yet to be identified. The magnitude of ethnic differences in academic attainment varies from one institution to another and from one subject area to another… This suggests that they result, at least in part, from the teaching and assessment practices that are adopted in different institutions and in different academic subjects.
However, precisely which aspects of teaching and assessment practices might be responsible for variations in the attainment gap has yet to be determined… The key task for future research is to identify those factors.” (2018: 97-98)
Ahead of a forthcoming discussion and briefing session for LLI colleagues, I’ve had a go at summarising ten broad reflections/observations, based on what I’ve been reading. The decision to opt for ten is, if I’m honest, somewhat arbitrary, as you will realise as you read them…
- The BAME student awarding gap is real, persistent and well-documented, both over time and across UK HE.
- Its more precise nature nevertheless varies according to factors such as: i) different groups of students within the somewhat generalist, and not always entirely helpful, category of ‘BAME’; ii) types of institution; iii) types of discipline; and iv) (it appears at least) types of assessment.
- Any work we do in response to the awarding gap should certainly be informed by current research, in order to appreciate likely contributing factors and identify types of interventions that may well help us to close the gap. However, we need also to be mindful that this research does not, indeed could never, provide context-independent, recipe-like prescriptions for action (I’ve written elsewhere about why educational research can never really work this way).
- The research cannot tell us, definitively at least, precisely what factors are causing the persistence of the awarding gap and how. Still less can it chart decisively the relative importance and significance of different factors vis-à-vis one another and/or vis-à-vis specific institutional or curricular contexts. This is no doubt in part a result of: a) the relative infancy of the research; and b) the complex and multi-layered character of the problem itself. Research can, however, make certain plausible proposals regarding the factors likely to be causing the awarding gap, given: i) the UK’s history and ongoing realities of racism and structural inequality; and ii) the ways that formal education has (to its shame) typically tended to reinforce, and even help intensify, these realities.
- Educational interventions alone cannot, by definition, address the much broader social factors believed to be most likely contributing to the persistence of the awarding gap. This should lead us to be wary of any proposed ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ fixes at the level of teaching, assessment, curriculum design etc.
- That said, the undoubtedly complex and multifactoral nature of the problem should not be viewed as an alibi for inaction. Rather, it is a challenge to act with appropriate humility and curiosity and to ensure that when we do act, we do so with, rather than on, students. In this way, our interventions should be viewed more like exercises in participatory action research (or at least as drawing on appropriate elements of such a methodology) than off-the-peg, ready-to-implement ‘solutions’.
- Like all institutions, universities are embedded within broader social, economic, cultural and ideological contexts. As such, they are home to an ongoing and uneasy tension between their inescapable role in reproducing the dominant structures and relations of power in society at any given time (e.g. those relating ethnicity, gender, class etc.) and their potentially more subversive and emancipatory role in producing knowledge and resources to help challenge and transform these structures and relations. The curriculum is a key space in which this tension is lived out and wrestled with.
- This leads to the rather messy and uncomfortable truth that universities are spaces where oppression and liberation, erasure and affirmation, recognition and misrecognition tend to coexist. This is true even at the level of a single classroom activity, let alone at the level of a student’s varied, and decidedly non-linear, experiences of a degree programme.
- Inclusive teaching practices, addressing the awarding gap, dismantling the normative whiteness of the curriculum etc., whilst certainly not unrelated, are nevertheless not identical or interchangeable, and we should avoid assuming that progress in one of these areas will result in concomitant progress in others. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that we could achieve progress in one area whilst simultaneously regressing in another.
- It behoves us, then, to acknowledge the often close relationships between the objectives often gathered under the broader umbrella title of ‘EDI in the curriculum’ whilst also recognising the distinctive features, dynamics and challenges of each of these objectives, too.
A range of ideas and recommendations for practical action to support student attainment and progression have begun to emerge in recent years, (see, for example, here and here) and this is certainly encouraging and potentially helpful. But, as several of the reflections above indicate, any recommendations need to be properly contextualised and evaluated, in partnership and in continuous dialogue with students. As ever, where educational practice is concerned, the temptation to simply replicate approaches and practices that have ‘worked’ elsewhere, should be resisted in favour of more context-sensitive approaches which take into account local factors likely to enable or constrain the success of any intervention.
Arday, J. and Mirza, H.S. (eds) (2018) Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Miller, M (2016) The Ethnicity Attainment Gap: Literature Review, The Widening Participation Research and Evaluation Unit, University of Sheffield.
Richards, J.T.E. (2018) “Understanding the Under-Attainment of Ethnic Minority Students in UK Higher Education: The Known Knowns and the Known Unknowns.” In Arday, J. and Mirza, H.S. (eds), Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan: 87-102.
Stevenson, J., O’Mahony. J., Khan. O., Ghaffar, F. and Stiell, B. (2019) Understanding and overcoming the challenges of targeting students from under-represented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds. London: Office for Students.
NUS and UUK (2019) Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment At UK Universities: #Closingthegap