Smaller ethnicity awarding gap tied to Covid exam policies, Advance HE suggests

Analysis of degrees demonstrates “beyond reasonable doubt” that ethnicity awarding gaps exist, Advance HE says – but could new exam practices be part of the solution?

The first year of the pandemic – when universities scrapped exams in favour of other forms of assessment – coincided with the narrowest ethnicity awarding gap since 2005, Advance HE analysis has revealed.

Universities suspended in-person examinations during the pandemic, opting in many cases for alternative assessments, like coursework or open-book tests. Some introduced so-called no detriment policies to ensure that tests sat after the disrupted spring term could not negatively affect grades.

Panagiota Sotiropoulou, a researcher for Advance HE, said it was unclear if this trend would persist. “The decrease in the white-black, Asian and minority ethnic awarding gap possibly reflects the greater (and, as some would claim, fairer and more flexible) use of results from coursework and continuous exams to determine qualification awards [and] as a result of the ‘no detriment’ policies adopted by many UK HEIs”, she said.

Advance HE has monitored the white-black, Asian and minority ethnic awarding gap since 2005, which fell 3.4 percentage points between 2018/19 and 2019/20 compared to an average fall of 0.3 percentage points in previous years.

The difference in proportions of white and black, Asian and minority ethnic students awarded a first- or upper second-class honours degree was 9.9 percentage points.

The gap was starkest among the numbers that gained firsts: 38.9% of white graduates and 28.6% of black, Asian and minority ethnic graduates left university with the highest standard of degree, a gap of 10.2 percentage points.

Overall, the awarding gap was starkest between white and black graduates – and smallest between white and Chinese and Asian Indian graduates. The difference was biggest between part-time students and those on arts and humanities subjects.

The gap was “non-existent or very small” at three universities – but was around 20 percentage points at 16 institutions. Smaller institutions – and those with a large intake of black, Asian and minority ethnic students – tended to have the biggest awarding gaps and universities in the Russell Group tended to have the smallest.

A much higher proportion of graduates across the UK received first-class or upper second-class honours degrees in the first year of the pandemic. More than a third of first degrees (35%) were first-class honours – compared to 28% in 2018/19. The Office for Students (OfS) argued no-detriment policies led to this grade inflation. Universities UK argued the causes of this increase were multi-faceted, that other factors could be at work, “most notably the dramatic changes to teaching, learning and assessment”.

Jonathan Neves, Advance HE head of business intelligence and surveys, described the report as “some of the most comprehensive analysis conducted to date” on the issue of awarding gaps. The figures put “beyond reasonable doubt that a clear awarding gap, particularly in terms of awarding first-class degrees, remains even after controlling for a range of demographic and institutional differences”.

The OfS wants universities to eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes between white and black students by 2024-25 and for any remaining gap to be entirely eradicated by the start of the next decade.

Read more: Drop ‘BAME’ to tackle awarding gaps, says AccessHE

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