Mind, don't dismiss, the BME attainment gap

November 22, 2012

Universities are more keen to "explain away" the attainment gap between white and ethnic-minority students than to address the problem.

That is the view of Aneez Esmail, associate vice-president for social responsibility, equality and diversity and professor of general practice at the University of Manchester, who said that many universities refuse to acknowledge that black and minority ethnic (BME) students achieve lower degrees on average than their white contemporaries.

Rather than tailor extra support to help such students, institutions often sought to attribute the gap to other factors, he said. Other variables blamed for the gap can include gender, prior attainment, deprivation, age and subject of study.

However, Ethnicity and Degree Attainment, a government report published in 2007, found that inequalities in performance remained even once these factors were considered.

Figures released this week by the Equality Challenge Unit show that 69.5 per cent of UK-domiciled white students achieved a first or a 2:1 in 2010-11, compared with 51.1 per cent of BME students.

The gap was even wider for black students, with only 40.3 per cent scoring a first or a 2:1, according to Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2012, published on 20 November.

"People still somehow want to explain it away by saying 'we need more data'," said Professor Esmail. "We have these really bright students coming to a place such as Manchester where the standard offer is AAB, yet (they) are coming out with worse outcomes than their white colleagues.

"For us as teachers this is very worrying, because something is happening that is not allowing students to reach their potential."

Statistics obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the gap persists at many of the UK's most selective universities.

At Manchester, the difference between white and BME students achieving top degrees varied from 13 to 15 percentage points over the five years to 2009-10, while at the University of Bristol it fluctuated between 7.4 per cent and 9.9 per cent, except in 2009-10 when it jumped to 15.5 per cent.

Social inequality is a major reason for the gap, Professor Esmail said, with BME students less likely to engage with educational opportunities than their white peers.

"To make it to Manchester you've been very good, but you need a different interaction with your professors and you may not have that," he said.

Improved induction classes and more detailed feedback could help BME students to engage more fully with their studies, thereby improving their grades, he added.

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