Why race should be high on the student attainment agenda in 2017

There is little sector-wide motivation to address the attainment gap between white and BME students, says Min Rodriguez

January 17, 2017
BME sutdent on mobile phone
Source: Alamy

The proportion of UK students identifying as black and minority ethnic (BME) attending university reached 21 per cent in 2014-15 – its highest ever. Despite this increase, there is a 15 per cent attainment gap between white and BME students achieving a 2:1 or above – aka, a “good degree”.

This gap is greatest between white and black students. It has closed incrementally each year since 2005-06 when it was 29 per cent, but it is still at 26 per cent.

This improvement is slow and disproportionate when compared with the progress in white student attainment. This has gone from 65 per cent getting a 2:1 or above in 2005-06 to the 77 per cent presently achieving a “good degree”.  

Therefore, we in higher education should be asking ourselves with more rigour why this might be. Why is it that the rate of improvement for white students significantly surpasses that of BME students? 

A Department for Education and Skills (DfES) research report from a decade ago highlighted the issue of degree attainment. This was followed by a further study in 2008 from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) that supported those initial findings.

The research confirmed that even after controlling for the majority of contributory factors, being from a minority ethnic group was still found to have a statistically significant and negative effect on degree attainment.

A number of recommendations were made for higher education institutions and sector organisations to address the issues identified in the study. Yet there is an aspect of the report that has moved on since it was published in 2008, and that warrants a mention now: the legislative environment of the time and where we find ourselves today.

When the 2008 report was published, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 required higher education institutions to meet a three-stranded general duty to:

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination
  • promote equality of opportunity
  • promote good race relations between persons of different racial groups.

This was known as the “positive duty”, as it required institutions to pre-empt unlawful discrimination before it occurred and be proactive in meeting the three strands outlined above. The aim was to help institutions ensure that students and staff of all ethnic backgrounds could make the most of their experiences in higher education.

This was accompanied by four specific duties, which could be considered as the tools institutions could use to meet these aims. These were to:

  • create and maintain a race equality policy
  • monitor the admission and progress of students and staff recruitment and career progression by racial group
  • assess the impact of all institutional policies for their impact on different racial groups
  • regularly publish the results of all its work on race equality, in particular the results of work outlined above.

These have since been superseded by the general duty outlined within the Equality Act 2010. This accommodates all protected characteristics including race and now asks institutions to:

  • eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation
  • advance equality of opportunity between different groups
  • foster good relations between different groups.

There are also specific obligations universities must meet. These include reporting annually against progress and setting equality objectives. Both must be made accessible to the public.

However, a 2013 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that of 130 universities, one in nine had not published any equality objectives at all. Of the institutions that did, just 73 per cent set objectives relating to race, and 58 per cent of those objectives were related to service delivery outcomes, not degree attainment.

Therefore, it is not difficult to see how this legislative shift may have changed the behaviour of institutions in relation to racial inequalities.

But despite the student attainment data being made available for institutions to use, there seems to be little sector-wide motivation to address this matter with urgency. The problem is a persistent one and leaves institutions to figure out the complex and varied reasons for the attainment gap. While this is a resource-consuming and difficult exercise, it is, undoubtedly, the right thing to do.

Higher education is there to develop thought, and inspire innovation and creativity. It is a springboard to the future. Yet can higher education say wholeheartedly that it is doing enough to secure the same outcomes for all?

Min Rodriguez, head of equality, University of Hertfordshire.

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