With just over half its students coming from ethnic minorities, Kingston University is proud to be one of the UK’s most multicultural universities.
But the southwest London institution is less pleased with the results achieved by its black and minority ethnic students; as in many other universities, they are far less likely to emerge with a first or upper-second class honours degree than their white classmates.
Only about 45 per cent of its black students and 50 per cent of Asian undergraduates gained at least a 2:1 compared with about 75 per cent of white students, according to the university’s 2013-14 access agreement.
With many employers nowadays looking for a minimum of a 2:1 when selecting applicants for interview, that attainment gap has major implications for a large proportion of Kingston’s student body.
Despite significant work over the past three years, Kingston has now redoubled its efforts on this front.
In March, the university’s governors said that the reduction of the BME attainment gap would become a key institutional performance indicator. They also approved a new achievement plan to improve student outcomes, which includes targeting subjects where the attainment gap is greatest.
Such action may seem simply like common sense, given the immediacy of the problem and its lasting impact on graduates entering a tough labour market. But, according to campaigners, universities have been loath to tackle the issue of the BME attainment gap – which sector-wide is only marginally better than that seen at Kingston.
Institutions, campaigners claim, have instead sought to “explain away” the gap by attributing it to socio-economic, gender and subject factors, as well as family circumstances, that militate against ethnic minority achievement.
“You cannot simply ignore the problem just because it is a very complex one,” said Lesley-Jane Eales-Reynolds, Kingston’s deputy vice-chancellor (education), who is leading the BME attainment initiative.
Academic research has highlighted, among other things, supposedly white-centred curricula, the way assessment is designed and students’ caring commitments as reasons for the under-performance of black and Asian students, Professor Eales-Reynolds explained.
But Kingston is keen to focus primarily on raising black students’ expectations, she said.
“These students often have the skills but not the personal confidence to apply them properly,” Professor Eales-Reynolds continued.
Expanding Kingston’s Student Associate Scheme, in which undergraduates spend time working in schools as mentors or teachers, will help many undergraduates to build confidence, and also improve their critical thinking and communication skills, she said.
“If you have to read something and explain it to someone else, you have to distil that text and then communicate it in an accessible way,” she added.
Kingston will also expand its student leadership programme, which has managed to increase the numbers of students in course representative, community activist and students’ union positions, with shared roles sometimes now used to boost the numbers who can get involved.
Those BME students who took part in the scheme are significantly more likely to gain greater self-confidence and to excel in their studies, despite the added workload, evidence suggests.
“I believe there is also an issue on how students understand and interpret assessment criteria,” said Professor Eales-Reynolds.
“Students might have the knowledge, but they need to know how to apply it in the right way,” she continued, arguing that lecturers might deliver more “exam theory” so that students know how to meet the learning outcomes required for a 2:1.
However, could white students at Kingston – who made up 48 per cent of the study body in 2013-14 – lose out as the university targets underachievement by BME students?
Absolutely not, insisted Professor Eales-Reynolds, who said that all students will be able to gain from the improved learning opportunities provided by Kingston. “We are trying to move [students] at the lowest position to a better position, but everyone will be supported and have chances to develop,” she added.
“BME students have further to move up the attainment ladder than non-BME students, but everyone will be encouraged and supported to climb that ladder.”
52% of students at the institution are from an ethnic minority group
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