The student population of the UK has certainly changed from the mainly white, mainly male profile of 50 years ago, even if there is still considerable work to be done.
Diversity and inclusion can be mainly associated with class, ethnicity, religion, ability and gender. Over the past decade, we have seen considerable change within higher education that has widened and increased access and participation for individuals from diverse backgrounds. However, no-one wants to be just another statistic. I am going to highlight some of the issues and areas of concern that may have an impact on the attainment of BAME students in HE, which, in turn affect the future progress of said students beyond formal education. Are we as educators working in Higher Education institutions doing enough to address diversity within our classroom? What is our pledge to reducing the ‘attainment gap’? How do effects and beliefs directly affect the “student experience”?
In 2018, the Changing Mindset conference held at the University of Portsmouth disseminated findings from a multi-university partnership project focused on strategies, interventions and initiatives to address attainment gaps, and reducing the variation. One interesting finding from the research conducted as part of the Changing Mindset Project was that BAME Home/EU students were 15% less likely to receive a first or a 2:1, compared to Home/EU white students. However, the ECU statistical Report 2017 highlighted that the attainment gap between white and black students qualifying with a First/2:1 degree was 25.3% (ECU 2017).
The culture of an institution is reflected by the behaviours and actions of staff. There are many challenges and keys issues that may impact negatively on tackling the ‘attainment gap’. Below are just some points to take into consideration:
- Bias – however much we might think we don’t discriminate, we are all biased in some form. It is difficult to break bias habits without motivation and sustained effort (Devine et al, 2012).
- Unconscious bias – may have come from a representation that is not accurate but never-the-less becomes the foundation of new beliefs and behavioural systems. One example of this is the “Stereotype threat”. Research has shown that stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance. (Mahmud 2017). Where does your world view come from?
- Conscious bias; intentional – a representation that one promotes is neither accurate nor fair, but instead provides personal or institutional benefits for those expressing said bias, in term impacting on attainment.
- Implicit bias – unchallenged belief system embedded within a broader culture
- Fixed Mindset – the notion that things are fine as they are becomes a block to learning and finding new solutions; “difficult to change thinking” (Dweck 2017)
- Insufficient student knowledge of HE due to lack of advice and guidance, making it difficult for individuals to navigate the HE landscape. – A large percentage of students from BAME communities engaged in Higher Education are from disadvantaged backgrounds, often only having access to poor primary and secondary education.
- Socio-economic background and maintenance support – a number of students will enter higher Education with a belief system that could inadvertently maintain or widen the attainment gap. Further, economic stresses on poorer students can directly affect both integration and progress.
- Who can I turn to? – Research conducted as part of The Changing Mindset Project concluded that students from BAME backgrounds were less likely to talk to their lecturers or progress tutors.
- Structural racism, structural inequalities – There is a lack of BAME staff in lecturing and management level roles. Research has shown that people hire and promote in their self-image e.g. “0.6% of UK professors were black” (ECU 2017)
- Lack of ‘real’ models – You have to “see it to believe it”. If “normal” is a state or situation that is commonly and consistently observed, how does the lack of a significant BAME presence within teaching staff impact on the aspirations and self-worth of BAME students?
- Sense of belonging – How does the institution make you feel? How well does the institution encourage an active participation in shaping an inclusive learning community?
- Access for all – If academia is meaningful, then it is meaningful for all demographics, however, it’s obvious that many segments are not sufficiently represented professionally.
Universities UK has issued call for evidence to help collate good practice. Baroness Valerie Amos, former CEO of the Equal Opportunities Comission, believes that although considerable progress has been made in recent years, “the evidence is clear that not everyone benefits equally as a result of going to university” (Amos 2018). Below are some initiative that some HE institutions have put in place to help tackle diversity and inclusion:
- Diversity and Inclusion have been integrated and embedded in a curriculum that is “inclusive”
- Ambassador programmes
- Role modelling, or in the words of Karen Bennett OBE, “real modelling”
- Student and staff Mentoring programmes
- Helping students define success – identifying both internal and external milestones
- Reflective staff – encouraging professionals to focus on one’s own practice and impact on all students
Conclusion and way forward
Belief vs reality – The real test is going from talking about the attainment gap to actually doing something about it. So, what is our pledge? One iteration of the Changing Mindsets Project was a student and staff workshop-based intervention that was designed to building a growth mindset: the belief that intelligence is not a fixed characteristic and can be increased through effort (Changing Mindset Mid Project Report). There is no one thing or “one shoe fits all” approach to developing effective interventions and strategies, and it is important to encourage “buy-in” from staff and students. Stereotype threat is a major challenge and continues to contribute to large performance gaps between diverse groups of students. Unless these issues are addressed, the gap will only likely widen further. So how can we tackle this real issue together? It goes beyond “box ticking” and “lip service”, it is time to effectively act. We need to develop a growth mindset in staff and students that learning is a continuous process and one is never too old to learn.
A shift in mindset will lead to a shift in culture. We all have a role to play in this regardless of our own individual perceptions. The impact of academic leadership behaviours on BME Student Attainment Report 2018 found that “leadership style is one of the top four factors out of 14 that BME students believe influence their academic achievement (alongside motivation, fair treatment and fair assessment) and highlights the significant role that inclusive leadership could play in closing gaps.” (The insights – bme online). What can institutions do to support their senior leadership on how to tackle this, and encourage a “buy in” from all academics and staff? Students can feed into the process but should not be expected to deliver on the process. It is not just about design of strategies, but also about effective implementation and delivery. The ‘attainment gap’ focuses the mind on the issue at hand; however, it does not get rid of the problem.
Time to reflect
Below are some of the questions you need to ask yourself:
- Where do I think the university is now? As staff and students we need to refocus our minds and decide which direction we want to take.
- Who are our students?
- Has the student demographic changed over the years, and have we adopted or responded to the change?
- Do I think the university reflects my best value?
- HE is not an island. What are the obligations for schools and employers in narrowing the attainment gap? Prior attainment has an impact on the way BAME students view and succeed in HE and beyond, so it is vital that these challenges are addressed earlier in the educational cycle.