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Conversations about awarding gaps are quite often framed by the ‘student deficit model’. This concept attributes student characteristics as the main factor for explaining differences in attainment; “It follows in the deficit model that ownership, accountability and responsibility for inequalities do not reside with the institution but the individual” (EHRC 2019, p.98). This assumes that certain students lack skills, knowledge or experience rather than prompt an examination of university structures and the discrimination that exists within them (Universities UK & NUS 2019, p.16).

A classic example of this involves recommendations to separate students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds and providing them with generic skills instruction to bring them up to the standard of others. However, the seminal report Inclusive teaching and learning in higher education: a synthesis of research (Hockings, 2010, p21) notes that there was little evidence in earlier reviews of widening participation literature that this approach that is appropriate or effective.

Overall, the literature acknowledges the importance of explicitly refuting the deficit understanding of students in conversations about awarding gaps. However, it is persistent and will need to be factored into conversations amongst staff who might be wary of making significant changes to assessment in response to awarding gaps experienced by relatively small numbers of students with protected characteristics, such as race or disability, or even smaller numbers of specifically Black British students or undergraduates with declared mental health conditions (the two most significant student groups experiencing awarding gaps at Cambridge).


Next: The hidden curriculum