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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning






APP / Access & Participation Plan

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Every university in England is required to publish their Access and Participation Plan (or ‘APP’) by the Office for Students, the independent regulator for higher education. The APP sets out how higher education providers will improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education.

The Office for Students' intent is to eliminate:

  • The gap in entry rates at higher tariff providers between the most and least represented groups
  • The gap in non-continuation between the most and least represented groups
  • The gap in degree outcomes between white and Black students
  • The gap in degree outcomes between disabled and non-disabled students

Each university’s APP will be different, as they set their own targets working towards the Office for Students’ national targets and addressing areas where there are specific awarding gaps in equality of opportunity in their own organisation. The Office for Students monitors progress on each university’s APP and seeks action where targets are not met.

All full Access and Participation Plans are published on the Office for Students’ website and Cambridge’s can also be accessed internally (Access and Participation Plan 2020-2025 and all APP reports).


Awarding gap

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The degree 'awarding gap' is the difference in 'top' degrees – a First or a 2.1 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 mental health conditions. Although Cambridge’s students perform at a higher level overall, our own Access and Participation Plan (2019) 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 racialized identity is the most stable predictor of their attainment.

While previously the term ‘attainment gap’ has been widely used, this term encourages 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 HE sector as this recognises the systemic institutional factors that impact students’ academic performance.


Black and Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME)

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The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) defines Black minority ethnic (BME) as a broad term used to refer to the diverse communities in Britain whose ethnic or national origins are not wholly White British. Often the communities referred to as BME are non-White, although depending on the context they can also include White communities of non-British origin such as Polish and other Eastern European communities. The term Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) is an expanded version of BME and is used in a similar way,but includes Asian ethnicities. For more on sector-wide data regarding BAME awarding gaps, see Degree Attainment: Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Students (Office for Students, 2020).

Both BME and BAME are contested terms as they are perceived to homogenise communities from various ethnic and national backgrounds, and histories, with different experiences in the UK, including of racism. It is argued that no-one identifies their race or ethnicity as BME or BAME, outside of discussions of demographic data.

The students involved in current Black Lives Matter campaigns, the Access and Participation Action Research Project, CUACS and the BME Campaign encourage a specific and urgent focus on ‘Black’ student issues in conversation about current awarding gaps and anti-racist initiatives, as distinct from broader ‘BME’ or ‘BAME’ student issues, to avoid conflating the experiences of racially minoritised groups.


Black British

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‘Black’ - when used to describe people - is a racialised term describing those, usually with a dark skin colour, who are perceived as having a heritage from the African continent. Across the U.K higher education sector, there is a persistent and significant gap between Black and white students’ final degree classification; the Office for Students has developed a key performance measure to address this.

While there are clear correlations across the experiences of a broad range of Black international and domestic undergraduates, the Office for Students’ HESA data identifies the University’s awarding gaps to be most significantly impacting Black students domiciled in the United Kingdom, so it is this British cohort that is one of the current foci of our Access and Participation Plan. However, the outcomes of the work underway to address Black awarding gaps is anticipated to be supportive of all Black undergraduates.


Declared disability

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A student with a ‘declared’ disability (otherwise referred to in Cambridge as disclosed or self-reported) will have notified and registered with the Accessibility & Disability Resource Centre (ADRC) providing relevant documentation providing evidence of conditions that meet the criteria of having a disability and is thereby legally entitled to equitable access to teaching and learning and to anticipatory reasonable adjustments.

Disabilities are categorised by the Office for Students as: sensory, medical or physical impairments; cognitive or learning difficulties; mental health condition; social or communication impairments, or multiple impairments. The Equality Act 2010 sets out when someone is considered to be disabled and protected from discrimination. It says someone is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities; additionally, the impairment must have lasted for twelve months or to be anticipated to last for up to twelve months for it to meet the legal definition of a disability. These disabilities create additional barriers to accessing education and students may be disadvantaged compared to their peers.

At Cambridge, one of the most persistent awarding gaps currently relates to undergraduate students with declared mental health conditions. Across the higher education sector, disabled students now make up a sizable minority of the student population (approximately 1 in 8 in 2019 and rising, according to the Office for Students 2020). As not all students choose to declare their disabilities, the official figures are likely to be an underestimate.

Higher education institutions are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled students (Section 91(9) of the Equality Act 2010). This requirement applies across a range of matters, including student admissions, educational provision, and access to services and facilities. In other words, universities must take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled students are not put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to people who are not disabled. This means attention must be paid to the inclusivity and accessibility of learning environments, whether physical or online, as well as teaching and assessment practices.


Declared mental health condition

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A ‘declared’ mental health condition is one that is disclosed to be a disability and registered as such with the ADRC. A mental health condition or illness is different to mental health concerns: the difference is the degree to which the difficulties someone is having has an impact on their ability to function academically, socially and occupationally. Mental health conditions or illnesses typically have a more significant detrimental impact across many areas of a student’s life than episodes of poor mental health which may be time limited or situation specific (it must have lasted for twelve months or be anticipated to last for another twelve months or more). Mental illness includes a range of conditions for which there are standard criteria for diagnosis, such as depression and anxiety. The challenges of dealing with a mental health condition are made more complex by intersections with other characteristics, including other disabilities, ethnicity and gender.

The Office for Students’ Insight Brief (2019) analysed the differential outcomes for students with a declared mental health condition with other characteristics, noting significant increases in students reporting mental health conditions. Since then, a National Union of Students survey (2020) found that over half of students say their mental health is worse since the pandemic.


Decolonising the curriculum

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While the term ‘decolonisation’ is contested and subject to scholarly debate, many disciplines accept that in the past, assumptions regarding racial and colonial hierarchies informed a lot of thinking about how the world worked and what was worth studying.  ‘Decolonising the curriculum’ involves the current efforts to interrogate and transform the epistemological and structural legacies of colonialism, specifically where these produce inequities within higher education and barriers to knowledge, understanding and attainment. Advocates of decolonisation argue that there is an ethical obligation to respond when cohorts of students report a lack of representation or sense of alienation from particular topics of study or dynamics in the classroom.   Following this, decolonisation is now approached by some institutions as a particularly useful lens by which to consider the implications of a more diverse student body in terms of pedagogy and achievement (Decolonising Learning and Teaching Toolkit, SOAS 2018).


Deficit model

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The ‘deficit model’ emphasises that some students are failing due to a deficiency in their culture or background. In discussions about the reason for awarding gaps, this notion is often deployed when comparing the academic performance of students from non-white backgrounds to those from white cultures or backgrounds, or disabled students from those without declared disabilities. A deficit model response can be seen when separate remedial support offered to targeted cohorts of students to get them to ‘catch up’ to their peers, rather than encouraging inclusive educational practices. As a result, failure is attributed to individuals and communities with an analysis that fails to address structural issues of discrimination, ableism and racism. Advance HE argues that “Action needs to focus on institutional barriers and inequalities, rather than ‘improving’ or ‘fixing’ the student. Traditionally the language of attainment gaps has focused on students’ underachievement or lack of attainment, whereas it should focus on the institutional culture, curriculum and pedagogy” (Degree Attainment Gaps, 2020).


PAR / Participatory Action Research

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Participatory Action Research (PAR) is the qualitative research method used in CCTL’s APP Participatory Action Research Project, the student-staff partnership project developed to investigate and understand the reasons for awarding gaps at Cambridge, that involves annual cycles of projects with teams of student co-researchers across the life-span of the APP 2020-2025.

Participatory Action Research is an approach that is defined by active involvement of all stakeholders in the research process with the aim to collaboratively solve a problem or improve a situation. It is considered to be the most appropriately inclusive method for the aims of the APP’s awarding gaps research: “Such research involves people who may otherwise be seen as subjects for the research as instigators or ideas, research designers, interviewers, data analysts, authors, disseminators and users” (Nind 2014, What is Inclusive Research? p3.). Participatory Action Research speaks to a broader responsibility that universities have to influence our students’ development through including elements of participation as opposed to doing research ‘on’ or ‘about’ them (Walker & Loots 2017, Transformational Change in HE). That is, it moves beyond the utilisation of research as a means of simply understanding the inequalities that result in awarding gaps, and towards enabling those who experience marginalisation or privilege to ask new questions and develop their personal and collective agency to make meaningful changes.


Social model

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The social model of disability developed out of an understanding that disability is not something medical to be treated, but rather a failing on the part of society. Understood in this way, a response to disability is not about ‘fixing’ the individual, but rather about restructuring the environments and attitudes around them. By building inclusive practices into an institution’s structures and operations, fewer reasonable adjustments for individual disabled students will be needed over time. Where such adjustments are then requested, the institution can be much more responsive to individual student needs.


Universal Design for Learning

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the application of the social model of disability which restructures the educational environment and practices so that they are both inclusive and accessible for a diverse range of students with a variety of abilities, skills, interests and needs. UDL purposefully creates equal opportunities for diverse learners in the university classroom at the design stage of curriculum development or assessment design, rather than at the end when problems occur. UDL therefore helps to reduce the number of individual interventions or reasonable adjustments for disabled students – an increasing workload concern for teachers and support staff – while improving teaching, learning and assessment experiences of all students.