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Black and BAME awarding gaps

As the Office for Students notes, there are stark differences between ethnic groups in terms of the degree class they achieve. That is, across there sector there are significant variations in the outcomes of higher education between BME and white students:

‘The differences in degree outcomes between ethnic groups persist even when controlling for other factors which may affect attainment such as the student’s age, sex, course and qualifications on entry. Since the differences in outcomes cannot be explained by these common factors, this suggests that the cause of the under-performance of BME students may be associated with other factors such as institutional structures and curriculum’

Office for Students (2020) Topic Briefing on Degree Attainment: Black and BAME students p.4

The literature agrees that the cause for the gap may be complex, but there are identifiable and recurring key themes. The Ethnicity Attainment Gap: A Literature Review (Millar, 2016, pp.10-11) for instance, identified the following factors that students have reported as impacting on their academic performance:

  • Lack of staff awareness of BME issues: this, among other things, includes a tendency to frame the issue of differential attainment by problems associated with the student (the ‘deficit model’) rather than problems relating to the educational experience.
  • Hidden curricula: these need to be brought out into the open, discussed and critiqued. Education will always involve elements of hidden expectations related to the process of learning and the value of certain kinds of knowledge, but these should not go unchallenged BME students stressed the importance of having their perspectives included, and being allowed to help shape the content of their courses.
  • Representation in the curriculum: a lack of role models, and of material relevant to them in the curriculum, and a lack of opportunity to bring their perspectives to their education, were reported to result in feelings of alienation and exclusion in their courses.
  • Concerns about marking bias: Black and BAME students have two key concerns about marking bias; that their names will give them away as from a racially minoritised group and they will therefore get different feedback or a lower mark; and that their academic work on race and ethnicity is not valued as highly as other work.
  • Seeking support: Black and BAME students are reported to have concerns about lack of academic support; they are also less likely to come forward for help and want teaching staff to reach out to them instead.


Disabled students and mental health awarding gaps

The Office for Students’ Insight Briefing on Disabled Students (2020) identifies that proportion of students who disclose themselves as disabled or as having a mental health condition is rising, and that there is considerable “existing evidence which tells us that inclusive practices are critical to the delivery of successful outcomes and experiences for disabled students.”

It is increasingly recognised that the issues and challenges facing disabled students are complex; they intersect with multiple factors including different equality characteristics, concurrent disabilities, socio-economic status and previous educational experience (Review of Support for Disabled Students in Higher Education in England, 2019). Additionally, students with different impairmentsmay require differently tailored support.

The reasons for awarding gaps experienced by disabled students are outlined in Beyond the bare minimum: Are universities and colleges doing enough for disabled students? (2019) as including:

  • Delayed access to support: when disabled students do not receive support until well into their first year, this often means that they fall behind in their course and, in extreme cases, have to intermit or repeat a year.
  • Access to assistive technology and course materials: disabled students often struggle with the accessibility of teaching materials, including recordings of course material and lectures or the use of captions or other related support; the appropriate assistive technology also frequently confers a financial burden.
  • Skilled staff: disabled students are concerned that not enough staff understand or access available training to understand the issues facing disabled students, and the need for proactive provision of accessible learning resources to avoid the ‘deficit approach’ where students, particularly those with mental health conditions, are perceived to be a ‘problem’.
  • Inclusivity of learning and curriculum design: if a course is not proactively designed to reduce the accessibility needs of disabled students (‘universal design for learning’), then the burden is on the students to continually request reasonable adjustments, adding to the stress on their mental health.
  • Alternative assessment methods: individual requests for adjustments to conditions of assessment are generally available, but place a burden on students to pursue these themselves; the absence of choice and flexibility of assessment is a recurring topic of concern.


Next: What do Cambridge students say?