Good practice in reducing the BME attainment gap

Less than half of those universities who were involved in the pilot of the Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter Mark were successful in getting the bronze award. Working at one of the institutions that did not make the cut (this time at least), I think it is useful to look at what else can be done to improve the situation.

I have chosen two cases here that I think provide some insight; Kingston University who achieved the award and the University of Derby who did not apply but have a very interesting initiative about BME attainment.

Having seen the institutional commitment at Kingston it is easy to see why they got the charter mark, you can see a great deal of Kingston’s data and strategies here. From the Vice Chancellor down, there is a high level of awareness of the issue and a range of departmental initiatives trying to address the attainment gap. What is particularly interesting to note is:

  • Kingston have an institutional KPI to reduce the attainment gap
  • They have a specific equality, diversity and inclusion unit
  • They have a broad-ranging and high profile EDI strategy aimed at embedding EDI into everything they do (which feels genuine rather than a ‘lip-service’ document).
  • They do a lot of data analysis on the issue and in particular look at intersectionality as well as individual demographic markers.
  • They are ambitious about their EDI work

When you look at both the current work that Kingston do and the scale of their ambition you can not fail to see how far behind most universities are.

Derby is an interesting case for two reasons. The first is that they have seen the BME attainment gap fall from 24% to 14% in three years and it is likely to continue falling to around 12% in the latest reporting year. Given the current state of play in the sector that is impressive especially if that reduction continues. Whilst they themselves might admit identifying the exact cause is tricky, there is one element that has contributed and is worth a mention; Practical Recipes for Student Success

Derby’s approach has been to try to raise attainment for all with the aim of reducing the attainment gap. As you will note, if you browse the site, there are a range of different elements that they are encouraging. Their findings have been that there is no single solution and that a wide range of (predominately) small changes can make the difference; a bit like the Kaizen idea or the notion of ‘marginal gains’ employed by British Cycling.

What is also interesting in both institutions approaches to EDI is that they are open (Kingston publish their data and strategies on their website, Derby’s resources are open and free to use and re-purpose) and very keen on sharing their practice. Which, for even the most cynical of manager, suggests that there is plenty of mileage for reputational enhancement through a strong commitment to EDI in universities even if you are skeptical about EDI.


Trying to find a Research Question

I am struggling (doesn’t everyone) with the details of my research and my research question. I think I know Why? and How? but not What?

The Why?

Addressing the BME student attainment gap but with a focus on staff and how we teach.

The How?

Qualitative methodology, probably either narrative inquiry or phenomenology or a mix of both!

The What?

This is the struggle. I am really interested in staff attitude to diversity, their diverse classrooms and how they plan for that diversity. One of my working hypotheses is that more experienced staff who are exposed to greater diversity are more able to adapt their teaching. So what are the implications for newer or less experienced lecturers?

So what about?

  • Gather information about teaching experience and level of racial / cultural diversity in their classrooms
  • Ask about how they plan for diversity in their teaching and assessment?
  • Gather examples of ‘stories’ of teaching culturally / racially diverse students.
  • Gather stories about their own life experiences of diversity (being specific about cultural or racial experiences.)
  • Gather information about individual views on cultural / racial diversity at university (I imagine this would be tricky so would need to be phrased around the benefits that culturally diverse groups bring to our teaching.)

I suppose in this there are a number of threads: do prior life experiences or work experiences make a difference in how you plan for and teach diverse student groups? To what extent is diversity planned for in teaching? How do our values impact on teaching? The more I think about it the fuzzier it gets!!!

I really need also to see what is out there of a similar nature in the literature, so if anyone knows of any papers they can direct me to that would be great.

Is belonging important for retention and success in HE?

In many higher education systems around the world, the rate of degree completion has been a pressing concern. In the US in particular, completion rates are low and a wide range of models have been developed to help explain the issue and seek to remedy it. Two of the most widely adopted of these models in the UK are Tinto’s (1993) integration model and the model of student engagement (e.g. Kuh 2005). These models attempt to explain factors that impact on students persistence and ultimately success in higher education. However, these models attempt to explain the impact for students in general and it is unclear to what extent they are applicable to different groups of students; in particular non-traditional students.

In the UK, we know that black and minority ethnic (BME) students are less likely to complete their degree and are less likely to get a first or a 2.1 degree classification than white students.  Despite the adoption of student engagement and integration models these results have persisted and have been fairly consistent for over a decade (e.g. ECU 2012). Recent research in the UK as part of the  ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme’ identified sense of belonging alongside student engagement as a important factor in retention and success (Thomas 2012). Sense of belonging as it pertains to student success is an under-researched area of the literature (Hausmann, Schofield & Woods 2007). Hurtado & Carter (1997) argue that understanding minority students’ sense of belonging is key to understanding their experiences at university.

My concern here is that sense of belonging could be particularly important for black students in predominately white institutions (PWIs).  Harper (2009) describes the concept of ‘onlyness’ to capture the experiences of many black students at institutions where they may be the only person from their ethnic group in their class. Therefore, the current models which we use to understand student retention and success may therefore not be sufficient in understanding the experiences of black students without a consideration of belonging and thus may not be entirely helpful in addressing the completion and attainment gaps for black students in UK higher education.


ECU (2012) Equality in Higher Education: Statistical report. Equality Challenge Unit: London

Harper, S.R. (2009) ‘Niggers no more: A critical race counter-narrative on black male student achievement at predominantly white colleges and universities.’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 22 (6), pp. 697-712.

Hausmann, L.R.M., Schofield, J.W. & Woods, R.L. (2007) ‘Sense of Belonging as a Predictor of Intentions to Persist Among African American and White First-Year College Students’, Research in Higher Education 48 (7) pp.803-839

Hurtado, S. & Carter, D. (1997) ‘Effects of College Transition and Perceptions of Campus Racial Climates on Latino College Students’ Sense of Belonging’, Sociology of Education 70, pp.324-345

Kuh, G.D. et. al. (2005) Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco

Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation: London

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.), University of Chicago Press: Chicago

Research data poetry

A colleague Dr Anna Jones from Glasgow Caledonian University, introduced to me the idea of using qualitative interviews to create poetry as a way to present research data. I’ve been itching to give it a go and have finally tried it. Here is the first effort.

The context is a final year student talking about different assessment types and how certain types help learning more than others. The words in the ‘poem’ are all the students own words. The order of words have not been changed, the only thing I have done is take out words / sentences whilst making sure to retain the meaning that the student originally intended.

What do you think? Is the meaning clear? Is this a useful way to get across what the student was trying to say about assessment?

Everybody has a different opinion.

Some find the essays easy, some find the presentations difficult.

You should be able to show your understandings are independent

and not just book learning.


Coursework is a progressive,

it reinforces in your head

and makes you remember

what you are meant to do.


I didn’t get as much as I thought I would do (in exams)

compared to my coursework grades.

You can be just as smart if not smarter than everybody else

and it comes across as if you can’t.

On homophily and how to keep an open mind when the web makes it all too easy to live in an echo chamber

Some of my Facebook ‘friends’ have liked those pages that have so called inspirational quotes. This is fine until they repost one or like a quote which then appears in my news feed. One recent one I found profoundly depressing “You are only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with so be brave enough to let go of those who keep weighing you down.” This quote is wrong on so many levels but I’ll just stick to the homophily issue for here.

What it says to be is ‘get rid of people who disagree with you, who challenge you and make you think even if it is painful to hear.’ With the web and social media it is all to easy to live in an online world where you only ever interact with people like yourself and you can easily kid yourself just how diverse a network you have.

“look at all my friends from across the globe, I’m so tolerant and diverse.” Grr.

So how do we avoid this?

I’m sure there are wiser people out there than me who can answer this. But for me I try to keep in mind two simple strategies:

1) read widely, read opinions / articles that you disagree with. This is a good test to help me understand what my values truly are and it also serves to remind me than people do have radically different views to me.

2) Follow people on twitter than have different views (and FB friends). Do the opposite of the quote. Even though certain ‘friends’ and people I follow annoy me intensely at times it serves again as a reminder of the diversity of opinion in the world. It reminds me I must be tolerant of other views.

We can only make the world more equal if we attempt to understand opposing views not hide our head in the sand and pretend those views do not exist.

…and that last sentence risks sounding like an empty platitude (hoisted by my own petard!!!)

Who are Students Unions for?

This post is prompted by an email the Students Union sent to all students. As a postgraduate student, I received the email and there was one sentence which I found unprofessional and inappropriate.

“We helped a load of new students arrange their accommodation when the uni f***** up.”

Now leave aside the fact that is seems a bit disrespectful to all the hard working staff at the university; Students Unions have a long tradition of disparaging their universities and taking an adversarial stance.

No, for me the email seems to reveal a rather misplaced sense of their audience (the students). The first is age and position in the outside world, I am a bit older than the average student but there are plenty of mature students of a similar age and older. I don’t really expect an official communication to contain such language (even with the asterisks in place). I would expect more eloquence from a university student. Many of our students are professionals or will shortly be joining a profession where this kind of email would be unacceptable in the workplace. Many of our students will have families and children and once again it just is not appropriate language.

Secondly, there is the cultural consideration and a worrying trend amongst younger students towards a more laddish, sexist culture. I know the email was written by a young, white male and I think it reveals something of their cultural world which is far removed from my world and I suspect far removed from the world that many of our students live in. What would possess someone to send such a sentence to 20,000 individuals from diverse backgrounds? To my mind it is someone steeped in a certain culture where it is acceptable. The kind of culture I do not want to be part of and I would hope the kind of culture many of our students would not want to be part of.

So who does this Student Union think they represent? How was this sentence sanctioned and allowed to be sent out? Does it reveal a particular culture within the SU as I allude to or was it just a genuine mistake? [answers on a postcard please]

Maybe I’m grumpy and middle-aged but I would rather not get an email with the f-word in it and I suspect the same is true for many students.

NB: I am not offended by swearing. I swear myself but I do it in private or with small groups of people I know.

UPDATE: The Union have now apologised for the email. These are the facts.

1. The apology came 10 days after the original email.

2. The apology was qualified, “it (the original email) was written in a way we hoped would spark interest in the AGM and what the Union is up to.”

3. The bulk of the email was about the rearranged AGM.

Absent from the Academy

Really interesting short film that explores the absence of black academics in UK Higher Education. Should be required watching for all those who teach in HE. I found the student comments particularly interesting. Mirrors some of the comments Oxford Brookes students mentioned in our research.

Enjoy watching


One of the great things about blogs is the ability to go back and look at what you have written previously. I happened to stumble upon a series work blog posts I made back in 2010. What often surprises me is that I had some useful thoughts that are still relevant to my work today and that I should not forget them.

That thought then took me back to one of the findings of my e-portfolio research. What struck me in interviews with students who had really successfully used e-portfolios, was the value of looking back at your thoughts over time. Here is a link to my original slides about the idea.

Having just done this myself, I too found it a powerful learning experience. When asked to explain the value of keeping thoughts and reflections it is this process of going back over time that really adds value to reflective writing.

MOOCs – are they really working?

Over the next month or so I will digress from my normal diversity topic to talk about MOOCs (Massive Open, Online Courses – I am sure you already knew this given the hype about them in the past twelve months). I am about to embark on being a tutor in a MOOC for the first time. This has prompted some reflection on MOOCs.

First a disclaimer, I like the idea of openness but am somewhat sceptical of MOOCs, their hype and their power to change anything important in education. I have participated in a few MOOCs and feel that my participation has been somewhat unsuccessful. I have found it a frustrating experience. So I am hoping my own difficulties will help me be a decent tutor but I need to know why I have found it difficult. I think there are two key reasons:

1) The topic – I have engaged in work-based MOOCs (MOOCs about MOOCs and MOOCS about vaguely interesting work topics) when in hindsight I should have started with topics that I found inherently interesting.

2) The type of MOOC – they have all been cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs which place the emphasis of learning from each other). I prefer this style of learning in face to face situations but would probably get on better with the more structured xMOOCs.

3) Learning Design problems – this is the one that really bothers me. There is an interesting article written on Inside HIgher Ed that sums up my own frustrations. The description of the MOOC 1.0 is very apt. I really struggle with the idea that it is fine for so many people to not complete. The sense of feeling overwhelmed in a MOOC seems to be a common occurrence. Sue Folley offers some very practical tips of dealing with this and I heartily agree with most of them but I have a serious problem with the idea that “No one can engage with everything”. That strikes me as a serious design flaw of a course. It seems to be the fashion that a MOOC must provide loads of content / activity / discussion and no one is expected to do everything. It is no surprise students get overwhelmed. I wouldn’t do that to my face to face students and I haven’t done that on any of the online courses that I have previously taught. It feels like, as mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article, we have thrown out much of what we know about learning and learning design in these MOOCs.

My thoughts on this at the moment are, how can be make the massive seem smaller and more intimate? In a large lecture theatre you want to encourage engagement and you can do that by making the environment feel smaller by using group work and other techniques that don’t involve students having to speak in front of 300 of their peers. Can we use those ideas in a MOOC? Would we want to? Is it a way forward?

Multiculturalism or what really is this diversity thing?

As this is a learning journey, there is always the risk you read something that changes you views / previously held beliefs and makes you rethink. A new colleague introduced me to the writing of Kenan Malik yesterday. He has some interesting ideas on multiculturalism and why both sides of the debate are wrong.

Malik notes a serious flaw in the debate; that it fails to disconnect the lived experience of diversity from multicultural policy. The first is something we should celebrate whilst the second has been somewhat of a disaster.

One of his key arguments is that multicultural policy has exacerbated divisions based on race or other defined characteristics. In a drive to respect all difference we have ossified certain differences. That the very categorisation of certain characteristics essentially creates them as fixed aspects of identity. The example Malik uses is political representation of minority groups in Birmingham, England. The groups chosen to represent their communities were divided along race/ religious lines. In order to access funds and have your community voice heard you would have to use your most relevant group. Only of course no group speaks for the entirety of any community. The Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities were represented by a Muslim group, but what if you were a Pakistani atheist or Christian or Hindu and so on; you get the idea. The result is a gradual move towards identifying with a particular group in order to fit it and secure your own identity. This to me seems to undermine diversity and difference not celebrate it.

Malik highlights the inherent tension then for equality. “Equality cannot be relative, with different meanings for different social, cultural or sexual groups. If so it ceases to be equality at all…” (Malik 1998) It rather leaves us in the same absurd situation that George Orwell highlighted in Animal Farm, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Whose equality is better? Does religious equality trump sexual equality or vice versa? The current passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in England and Wales is a good example of how easy it is to get tied up in knots with our current multicultural policies. In order to maintain both religious freedom and freedom for sexual preference we get the legalisation of gay marriage as long as religious groups don’t have to do it. Which begs the question, either gay marriage is a societal value which we respect or it isn’t? Instead we have a fudge which fails to answer the question. We sort of respect gay marriage unless you don’t and then that is OK as long as it is a religious belief and not some other sort of belief which is prejudiced.

So how might this effect us on the individual level? For me, there is one single object which highlights the problem; the equalities monitoring form. Such a form asks for certain characteristics, all of which are social constructs, and offers limited choice as to the options we are allowed to identify with. We are so used to them that we probably don’t think much about filling them in but I suspect that over time they have subtle effects on our concept of our own identity. When I tick the white, british box I am forced to reaffirm my British nationality. The form is saying to me “remember you are British” or to others “remember you are Black African” and so on. We think the form reflects who we are. That it is a simple measure of an objective reality instead of it actually creating our identity and defining us in ways we might not want it to.

And why these certain characteristics. Why does what I do in the bedroom matter but my choice not to kill and eat animals doesn’t? (and before you jump on me for being racist, homophobic or anything else. Let me be very clear. I fully support diversity and equality but I think the way we go about it is wrong. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would discriminate against another for the colour of their skin or their sexual preferences.)

Identity is a complex and shifting aspect of our lives. It changes over time. Yet multicultural policies seem to assume immutability. In my research, I wanted to collect demographic information (although now I am not so sure of that idea) but I did it in a way that for gender and ethnicity there was no choices. There was just a blank box that allowed the participants to put whatever they wanted to in order to define their own identity. The result, every single one of them listed a category from an equalities monitoring form! Even though none of those categories were present on the form. That just demonstrates to me how pervasive this official categorisation has become. How strongly it seeps into the rhetoric of diversity and colours notions of our own identity.

So to action, well firstly I think a personal boycott of forms that expect me to categorise myself by predetermined categories. On a more serious level, I would be intrigued to know if anyone has already tested the hypothesis about whether removing the categorisation of people can actually start to eliminate inequality. I know psychologists have discovered the ‘stereotype threat’ effect (The comment section of my previous post has a link to an excellent talk explaining this.) I wonder how much this plays out in educational inequality. What this means for my own research into educational inequality I still need to reflect further upon. The research seems to show race / ethnicity is a factor but now I wonder if it is a factor because we have made it a factor by placing so much emphasis of differences. And how do we solve the inequality? Does the act of actually researching BME attainment and completion rates actually end up perpetuating the inequality or making it worse by once again emphasising crude categorical differences? Even though I have tried my hardest to make sure it is not about crude categorisation of people yet the BME / white division is exactly that.

On a personal level, I am still left pondering a question posed to me two months ago. I had been talking about my work on my course and a fellow student made a key observation. She asked “what colour her skin was?” A seemingly simple question which I couldn’t answer. Do I base my answer on her religious affiliation which is often tied to ethnic affiliation? Do I base my answer on actual colour and if I do is my view of any colour actually accurate? By answering the question, I would be imposing my view of her identity. It gets to the heart of race and ethnicity for me. I can tell you my identity but I refuse to let that define me (Yes I know about the invisible white knapsack but this post isn’t about power inequality but about how we view identity and difference.) and I refuse to impose your identity onto you. Naive maybe but I can always hope for a better more equal world.


Malik, K. (1998) ‘race, pluralism and the meaning of difference’, new formations no.33, available online [accessed 19th April 2013]

Orwell, G (1945) Animal Farm