The Report: Race to the top

With a review of the BME attainment gap by Universities UK and the National Union of Students due next year, University Business talks to practitioners and senior leaders about what steps universities must take to tackle racial inequality

What’s happening?

It is important to spell out the facts: Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) students are now more likely to enter higher education than their white peers, but white students are 13% more likely to achieve a first- or second-class honours degree than BME students. There are unexplained differences between students who – on paper, at least – should have a similar chance of obtaining the best degree.

This demographic group is less well represented at the more elite institutions. According to 2017 data from the Department for Education, the proportion of black Caribbean and white and black Caribbean students entering a higher tariff institution is the lowest of all ethnic groups. Even among the highest socio-economic quintile, the black Caribbean and other black background groups have the smallest proportions of entrants into highly selective providers. This inequality persists once students arrive at university. Black Carribbean, black African and those of mixed heritage are far more likely to drop out than white, Chinese or Indian students.

“I think a big reason why leaders have not engaged with racial inequality is the fear of getting it wrong; assuming that if they keep their mouth shut, somebody else will do it,” Prof Udy Archibong explains. Director of the Centre for Inclusion and Diversity and professor of diversity at the University of Bradford, Prof Archibong could not be more qualified to explain where the sector has been going wrong. Having advised institutional leaders in education and healthcare, Prof Archibong says this issue has been bumped down the list of priorities for reasons of leadership and culture.

Next year, the National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities UK will release the second of their Closing the Gap reports. Co-led by Valerie Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), and Amatey Doku, vice-president for higher education at the NUS, the report called upon vice-chancellors to sign a pledge and implement their five recommendations in full. To close the gap, the joint report said vice-chancellors must offer leadership, change conversations about race, develop racially inclusive environments, gather more evidence and share evidence of what works. Next year’s report will measure the sector’s performance.

“It seems to me,” Prof Gurnam Singh, professor of equity of attainment at Coventry University, says, “one of the big challenges reflected in the report is how you can get the seriousness of this message up to the higher echelons of universities. It’s not so much researching this problem to find out more about it; the question is: where is the political and ethical will going to come from to actually do something about it?” So, what’s the state of play?

“‘Minority’ in black and minority ethnic (BME), or black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) is numerically wrong; it captures, and linguistically preserves, differential privilege” – Prof Shân Wareing, deputy vice-chancellor (Education)

Who are we talking about?

Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) students (who have been referred to as BAME in the past) are a loose grouping of people who are – for reasons of race, ethnicity, or nationality – classified as a ‘non-white’ demographic group, one less likely to enter the most elite institutions and less likely to achieve the best degree classifications.

Prof Shân Wareing, deputy vice-chancellor (Education) at London South Bank University wrote in the recent HEPI report, The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education, “‘Minority’ in black and minority ethnic (BME), or black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) is numerically wrong; it captures, and linguistically preserves, differential privilege.”

This group is far from homogenous. Statistically, for example, 71% of Asian students who graduated in 2017 achieved a first or a 2:1, and just 57% of black students compared to 81% of white students. Of the 7,230 BME students accepted into Oxford in 2016, just 665 of them were black compared to more than 4,000 Asian students.

Where did the acronym come from and is it part of the problem; a lazy shorthand for people that reinforces racial ‘otherness’?

Prof Trish Reid, interim pro-vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at Kingston University, agrees: “The problem is, broadly speaking, white privilege and how it operates. The statistics show us the gaps that are based on ethnicity persist across all institutions and all subject areas. So, either white people are just much cleverer than everybody else or there’s something going on. The terminology helps us to draw attention to that, but it reproduces the problem by implying not being white is just one, homogeous group.”

This summer, Cambridge University launched its ‘Get in Cambridge’ campaign to recruit students. The campaign, however, veered away from any mention of BME – a phrase that was felt detracted from the positivity of the campaign. Speaking to University Business, a spokesperson explained: “On the basis of qualitative research into barriers to application we split the campaign into three phases, the first focusing on British black students; the second and third will be for British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students.”

Kingston University, Prof Reid says, has worked to better understand its diverse student population: “We’ve done work in our student dashboard to distinguish between Asian, British Asian, black students who are of Caribbean descent, and black students who are of African descent. It means, from a statistical perspective, the university can understand the nuanced backgrounds of different students.”

Prof Reid says it is important to recognise that a student who was born in Africa is in a different situation to a fourth or fifth generation descendent of the Windrush generation. Within the British Asian community are descendents of the generation of emigrants employed by the British empire in Uganda, who were more likely to have received a professional education. This group of people were the descendants of Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972.

The origin of the classification ‘Asian’ dates from the 1970s, Prof Gurnam Singh explains. “When Idi Amin expelled those people brought across during the empire, the Foreign and Commonwealth office didn’t know what to call them because some of them were Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani. So, they came up with Asian – the category didn’t exist in this society. When I grew up, there was no ‘Asian’. We were Sikhs or Punjabi, Indians or Pakistanis.”

Prof Archibong worries the debate around language is a distraction: “The big question is why we get completely distracted with semantics rather than doing what was done.

“I’m a complete believer in naming something and by naming that thing, you can work with it. I often visit organisations where the conversation is about the use of BAME or BME.  And that takes away from actually looking at what needs to be done. I think we need to challenge the language, but I don’t want it to drive the debate.”

Changing culture

“There needs to be more direct work by the Office for Students to make sure this work is spread more equally across the sector because there are people who do not engage with the work in the way they should. There are a small number of institutions who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting,” Prof Reid says. She suggests an expansion of contextual admissions as one key improvement universities must undertake to push the agenda of equality further.

Contextual offers, in Prof Singh’s view, are a good solution but he fears they are promoted in the wrong ways. He wants vice-chancellors to be more vocal in their advocacy for them. “The argument is that A-levels only measure certain things. Oxford and Cambridge have always thought A-levels were not a perfect measure of ability and that’s why they have had entrance exams. So, maybe, entrance exams might be another way to try to take a nuanced approach to a student’s potential.”

Could the problem be that too few people working and studying in higher education are black, Asian or minority ethnic, and those voices lack proper representation? According to HESA data, only 16% of academic staff are BME and that figure drops to 10% for professors. “I agree that is part of the problem,” Prof Archibong says, “but I do believe it is more than that because we think if we have BAME voices it’s done, but we don’t have the climate for those to voices to thrive. That’s why I make the comment: it’s not just counting; it is making those voices count.”

To support those students, universities, like Cambridge, have adopted new, socially inclusive support services with the appointment of three permanent BAME counsellors. Géraldine Dufour, head of the University Counselling Service (UCS), introduced the service after a UCS study of undergraduates found many wanted to speak to a professional who had first-hand experience of “the connection between ethnicity and mental health”. Last year, 24% of the students seen by UCS were BAME.

Riki Msindo, an undergraduate medic at Bristol University, is part of a BME success advocacy project organised by the university which offers students paid positions to review content and services. The three strands of the project will aim to tackle the teaching, community and social networking offerings for BME students. Riki was invited to feed back his findings to a Unite Students report and says there are problems for BAME students feeling part of a university community.

“I had some conversations with people who felt – in a massively, essentially, white environment – massively isolated and uncomfortable,” he says.

Prof Archibong agrees that more conversations are needed for universities to better “understand the impact of microaggressions in the classroom to explain why students are somewhat disengaged from the things that happen around them”.

Prof Udy Archibong

Changing teaching and learning

Riki’s role at the University of Bristol will see him meeting teaching staff to discuss diversifying the curriculum.

But what changes is he looking to secure? Riki says the problem is best illustrated by what is not included in the curriculum.

“As a medic, I realised we would only study skin conditions on white skin. Conditions on white skin look very different to black skin. We’ve been shown what every single condition looks like on white skin, but never what it looks like on black skin.” This teaching may exclude BME students and embed bias. Riki says black patients could be “disadvantaged” because of this glaring oversight.

Prof Singh says colonisation has elevated eurocentric culture above others and universities must lead a deconstruction of those values. “I try to have the analogy with currency,” Prof Singh says, “we all develop our own personal currency, the problem is, you can’t always spend that in places that have a different currency. The job of the institution is to act like a currency exchange, how can we allow these students to capitalise on their talents.”

“Higher education is about augmenting people’s abilities as much as it is about teaching them new things, and that happens, I think, by default for students who already fit that dominant cultural trope here. The non-traditional students may themselves become trapped in this idea that their experiences have no relevance. I feel that the most important commodity to learning is confidence,” he explains.

Could verbal assessments be part of the solution? “Definitely,” Prof Singh says, “because one of the great strengths, and I think the capital, that students from non-traditional backgrounds bring to the university is oral skills.”

Kingston University has made tackling the attainment gap a key performance indicator, putting it on par with financial and research objectives. Prof Reid says the universities’ inclusive curriculums framework (ICF) “addresses diversification of the curriculum”.

“We don’t actually use the word ‘decolonising’ in Kingston’s ICF, but it is underpinned by critical race theory which challenges exclusionary epistemology.

It also underlines that students and staff need to see people like them in the higher education experience, as role models and mentors.”

“The statistics show us the gaps that are based on ethnicity persist across all institutions and all subject areas. So, either white people are just much cleverer than everybody else or there’s something going on” – Prof Trish Reid, interim pro-vice-chancellor for learning & teaching

Creating incentive

The big issue is money. Prof Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, wrote in The White Elephant report that, in his view, university research grants must be made conditional on institutions joining the Race Equality Charter – at present, just 56 have registered for an award. He says universities must pledge more resources to support equalities because – for reasons of finance and time – gender and race had had to compete for attention. “Higher education institutions responded by considering economising strategies such as combining roles focusing on race and gender, or arguing that the Race Equality Charter was less necessary in a particular institutional context,” Prof Bhopal notes.

“The leadership of those things that we’re doing around this agenda at the moment, I think could be coordinated a lot more,” Prof Archibong says. University staff want to see “transparency in our leadership, they want to see how leaders are genuinely promoting and setting the tone for the work”, she adds.

Just as Kingston has set racial equality as a KPI, Prof Singh wants vice-chancellors to be measured against their progress on this issue: “These requirements have got to be transparently built into appraisals and contracts for senior measures. Not only will it make our leaders accountable; it will have the effect of normalising these activities.”

You might also like: Make research grants conditional on tackling racial inequality – Hepi

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