There is a longstanding attainment gap between black and ethnic minority (BME) students and white students. The gap between the proportions obtaining first-class and 2:1 degrees is 15.2 percentage points (‘Equality in higher education: Statistical report 2016’, Equality Challenge Unit). This contrasts with schools, where many ethnic minorities outperform white pupils (‘GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics: 2014’, Department for Education, published January 2015)
‘Ethnicity and attainment’ (Broecke and Nicolls, 2007) is a study of 65,000 students which confirmed that, after controlling for many variables, ‘being from a minority ethnic community is still statistically significant in explaining final attainment’. A 2015 HEFCE analysis, ‘Differences in degree outcomes: The effect of subject and student characteristics’ (HEFCE 2015/21) came to the same conclusion.
As chair of the Higher Education Race Action Group, working with colleagues across the sector, I have focused on raising awareness of the attainment gap for a number of years. There is compelling evidence that challenges the commonly held belief that it is due to a deficit in the student ability or capability, but this has not led to strategic and institutional-level action.
In fact we are deeply disappointed that 10 years after the 2007 government study, the key focus remains on the student, as if they alone are the cause of the gap. It is time for institutions to focus on improving their own processes and enhancing the knowledge and skills of their staff as well.
Realising that higher education staff saw the attainment gap as something that was created by someone else, and doing something about it as inherently unfair or someone else’s job, I started to dig deeper into my own institution’s data. The result was a Value Added (VA) metric for Kingston, developed by our Head of Planning, which confirmed our hypothesis that taking into account entry qualifications and subject of study, the differentials seen in the national studies would be replicated at Kingston.
This means that BME students were less likely than their white counterparts to achieve a first or 2:1. We have found that the VA as used at Kingston is a powerful tool that offers no real escape into previously held arguments.
VA scores take account of a student’s prior entry qualifications and subject of study when assessing their degree attainment. By using data for all graduates across higher education for the last five years, broken down by entry qualifications and subject of study, we can arrive at a probability that a given student will achieve a first or 2:1 degree.
By aggregating these probabilities we can produce the ‘expected’ percentage of a given cohort of students who should achieve a first or a 2:1. If the cohort achieves this percentage, the VA score is 1. For percentage attainments above or below this percentage, the VA score is proportionately greater or less than 1.
As an academic myself some years ago, I knew that just telling course teams that there is a problem is unhelpful: we needed to help them to do something about it. Just as we took an institutional approach to disseminating our VA, we also wanted a systemic approach to addressing inclusion in the curriculum.
I am proud of the Inclusive Curriculum Framework (ICF) because it is demystifying inclusivity for staff at all levels, in both academic and professional services roles. It has fired the imagination of many people and has generated a deeper conversation about race at Kingston University.
We also have a Board who made the gap an institutional key performance indicator, and a fantastic team who have put their hearts and souls into reducing the gap. We are inspired by committed academics who have provided examples of good practice and those who have responded by enhancing their practices.
We applied for the HEFCE Catalyst Fund’s ‘Addressing Barriers to Student Success’ programme because we wanted to share our learning across the sector, as part of the university’s real commitment to equality and civic engagement.
I am excited about the opportunity to test the transferability across different institution types of the VA score and the ICF, which we feel have in combination contributed significantly to reducing the gap at Kingston.
We have been meeting with the key staff across the six partner institutions that are committed to addressing their own gaps, to see how the methodology and tools can fit into their existing reporting and dissemination structures and processes. Each institution is different, and this is important because it helps to test whether our VA and ICF can be used to change cultures and close the gap in institutions other than Kingston.
At Kingston we have also worked very closely with the student union, and have created the role of curriculum student consultants who we train, support and integrate into course enhancement processes to ensure they are seen and used as co-creators of the curriculum. We will be supporting partners to adopt or adapt this model in their own student union and course evaluation exercises.