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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


About awarding gaps

What are awarding gaps?

The degree ‘awarding gap’ is the difference in ‘top’ degrees – a 1st or a 2.I final degree classification – awarded to different groups of students.

At Cambridge, there is a persistent awarding gap between the proportion of white British students receiving these degree classifications compared to their Black student counterparts, and for non-disabled students compared to students with declared disabilities, specifically those with mental health conditions. Although Cambridge’s students perform at a higher level overall, our own Access and Participation Plan (2020-2025) identified the awarding gaps experienced by Black students to be a recurring pattern which cannot be explained by previous education, socio-economic background or other intersecting variables such as gender or postcode: a Black student’s racialised identity is the most stable predictor of their attainment.

While previously the term ‘attainment gap’ has been widely used, this term encourages the perception that the gap is due to individual students’ performance (see the ‘deficit model’ below). Instead, the term ‘awarding gap’ is increasingly preferred across the higher education sector as this recognises the systemic institutional factors that impact students’ academic performance.

Why do we need to address awarding gaps?

Put simply, addressing the awarding gap is a key step in ensuring that the University meets its commitment to its core value of freedom from discrimination. In addition, if students are being disadvantaged by their experience while at the collegiate University it is in contravention of the legal obligations for universities as set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Addressing the awarding gap is also of key importance to students themselves. While the data indicates that at the ‘good degree’ level gaps do not often exist, they are more prevalent when we consider the proportion of 1sts when measured against protected characteristics. This has an impact on entry into the labour market, which can exacerbate the significant discrimination in wider society faced by particular groups of students. In addition, having a 1st-class degree is often a prerequisite for entry to prestigious postgraduate degrees or institutions.

Why does getting a First matter? Is it not enough for students to have studied and graduated from Cambridge?

It matters because a 1st-class degree can make a difference to a graduating student’s competitiveness for both employment and for postgraduate study, and thereby a potential academic career.

The awarding gap follows BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students into their careers: the proportion of white postgraduates in employment or further education one year after graduation is a third higher than the proportion of BAME postgraduates (UK Government, 2020). Moreover, only 9.4% of professors at Cambridge are BAME, compared with 14% of the population in England and Wales, mirroring the proportion in the wider UK higher education sector.

Entry into an academic career is highly competitive, and selection for the most competitive and prestigious PhD positions – which increase the chances of progressing further in an academic research career – tend to go to those students with the highest grades, which fewer BAME and disabled students possess. This also affects progression into postdoctoral positions as students on prestigious PhD programs have a higher chance of obtaining the skills and outputs favoured by selection panels.

For instance, there is some evidence that suggests the awarding gap may limit access to PhD funding, with research indicating that Black Caribbean PhD students are less likely than other PhD students to have a fully-funded UK Research Council Studentship (Williams et al., 2019).

Are awarding gaps only important to a small minority of students?

While students who are either Black or have declared mental health conditions are the current focus of the University’s Access and Participation Plan 2020-2025, awarding gaps related to gender have long been observed in a number of courses across Cambridge. That is, women are less likely to be awarded a 1st-class compared to men even in subject fields where women make up a higher proportion of admitted students. Additionally, we have data on awarding gaps by school type and by domicile in the University’s Tableau dashboards, which may provide insights into student demographics by course or College.

How is the work on awarding gaps relevant to my course, which doesn't exhibit any awarding gaps?

It is true that the numbers of Black British students and students with declared mental health conditions are small, and that these numbers become even smaller and less statistically significant when we drill down to look at patterns of awarding gaps in individual courses.

However, the University’s commitments to increase the diversity of our student population in a relatively short period of time means we need to anticipate that as numbers rise, awarding gaps may open up in courses where they do not currently exist. For this reason, it is advantageous for all courses, and not just those where awarding gaps can be currently identified, to engage with the University’s commitment to eliminate awarding gaps.

What if I have such small numbers of students in my course that I can't tell statistically whether we have an awarding gap?

We would recommend collating internal data that might provide insight into the specific issues affecting your students, as well as considering any broader institutional quantitative and qualitative data that you may have access to, such as student surveys. If you are unsure what data are available, please contact the Awarding Gap Consultation Team.

In addition, if your student numbers for particular student groups are so small that they do not appear in the data visualisation dashboards on awarding gaps on the Tableau server, this may suggest that your focus should be on widening participation initiatives to diversify the students who apply and are accepted to your courses.


About accessing data on awarding gaps

Where can I access quantitative data on awarding gaps at Cambridge?

The attainment gap dashboard in Tableau presents detailed analysis of student attainment by College and course, based on three different measures – class, per cent mark and rank (the latter for 2018-19 onwards only). It also includes analysis of attainment broken down by various characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity and disability. Finally, it examines outcomes from the most recent academic year’s examinations and provides time series comparison with previous years’ results.

The underlying data is extracted from the University student records system CamSIS on 31 July each year – this date is chosen for year-on-year consistency as there is always some natural fluctuation in numbers through the summer due to ongoing appeals. Following data extraction, there is a period of quality assurance and checks, after which the results are published in mid-August.

The dashboard design is interactive; in other words, it enables you to choose exactly the particular aggregation of data you want to explore, or simply allows you to narrow down the data to your own course or College only.

This dashboard is available to all University and College staff on the secure online platform Tableau Server. If you wish to access the Attainment Gap dashboard for the first time (or many other dashboards of wide-ranging data sources such as student survey results or research activity), please complete the online form to request access to Tableau Server. The form is designed to ensure compliance with the GDPR requirements related to data access. Please request Viewer type access, which will enable you to use all the relevant dashboards that have been created by the central University offices. It takes around 1-2 working days for requests to be processed.

Where can I access qualitative data on awarding gaps at Cambridge?

The statistical data helped us to identify awarding gaps, but it didn’t help us understand the reasons for these gaps.

To understand what specific learning, teaching, assessment or curriculum interventions might have a positive impact on student progression and achievement, the Cambridge Centre for Teaching & Learning was tasked with undertaking the qualitative research and analysis strand of the APP work, to investigate the educational issues that might underlie Cambridge's awarding gaps.

This was realised as the APP Participatory Action Research Project, a student-staff partnership researching and analysing the drivers and intersections behind the gaps. The project has annual cycles of research with teams of students working to investigate and report on the reasons for the awarding gaps, to make recommendations to address the obstacles that impact the academic performance of students identified with awarding gaps, and to evaluate the impact of actions undertaken in response to these recommendations. The APP Participatory Action Research Project will continue with annual cycles across the lifespan of the Access and Participation Plan 2020-2025.


About using the Mind the Gap Toolkit

I am interested in awarding gaps but am only one lecturer / supervisor within a discipline; can I still use the toolkit?

Yes, while the Toolkit and other resources have been designed to support course teams, they can also be used individual paper coordinators or lecturers who wish to self-evaluate the inclusivity of their individual papers, courses or teaching.

What is the Awarding Gaps Consultation Team?

An Awarding Gap Consultation Team has been established to help Faculties/Departments to understand whether awarding gaps exist or are likely to arise in their courses, and then how to eliminate or pre-empt them. The AGCT can offer a range of support to course teams who apply for support. Its anticipated key contributions will be to help course teams in:

  • collating and analysing available relevant data
  • advising on how to evaluate whether current educational practices are inclusive through the use of the Self-Evaluation Tools
  • facilitating conversations about the reason for awarding gaps if any are identified
  • advising on the development of an action plan that will outline planned future activity, who will be responsible for the actions identified, and measure of success

A sub-set of prompts in the self-evaluation tools that accompany the Mind the Gap Toolkit have been developed for use in structured course-team workshops with the Awarding Gap Consultation Team to help identify prioritised areas for attention and to develop an action plan.

What are the Self-Evaluation Tools and who can they be used by?

The Mind the Gap toolkit is accompanied by a set of checklists with prompts for course teams and individual staff members to self-evaluate the inclusivity of their own practices, with prompts developed in collaboration with staff and students alert to factors that contribute to obstacles in academic performance, and hence awarding gaps.

These self-evaluation tools have been designed to guide a course team through an evaluation process, facilitated by the Awarding Gap Consultation Team. The tools are presented as checklists that are accompanied by a series of prompts to encourage reflection and mapping where, and how, current interventions and good practices occur across the course, or in individual practices in and around the classroom, as well as to develop an action plan for further work. Each one asks users to evaluate their progress against each prompt using a rating scale.


About closing awarding gaps

How does addressing awarding gaps work in a collegiate university like Cambridge?

This Mind the Gap toolkit can be used for course teams, or College directors of studies, to identify and seek to mitigate awarding gaps if found. The self-evaluation tools, which are a key element of the Toolkit, and work with the Awarding Gap Consultation Team can be undertaken with a group that has members from all those who have a role in the structure and delivery of a course – both University and College. In many cases the work will involve integration of academic skills/capabilities development into the curriculum and/or educational practices, and may intersect with welfare and pastoral care support offered within Colleges.

Can awarding gaps be fixed simply by diversifying the curriculum or changing assessment?

While type of assessment can be a key driver behind observed awarding gaps, and having a curriculum that reflects a diversity of experience is important within a high quality education, there are many other aspects of course design to consider. This is why the five self-evaluation tools in the Mind the Gap Toolkit consider a broad range of overlapping themes:

  1. inclusive curriculum design
  2. inclusive assessment
  3. inclusive teaching
  4. inclusive learning environments
  5. inclusive staff and student engagement
What is the connection between awarding gaps and inclusive practices?

The factors which contribute to the awarding gaps are complex. However, research, policy and practices across the higher education sector identify that taking an inclusive approach, particularly in relation to curriculum design, assessment, teaching and learning can have a positive impact on the experience and outcomes of all students.

The Equality Challenge Unit describes inclusive practice as 'an approach to teaching that recognises the diversity of students, enabling all students to access course content, fully participate in learning activities and demonstrate their knowledge and strengths at assessment. Inclusive practice values the diversity of the student body as a resource that enhances the learning experience' (Equality Challenge Unit, 2014).