Research shows degree attainment gap between Black and white students

New data from a recent study has uncovered a worrying reality for the state of higher education equality; a national “degree gap likely to preserve white advantage for ages.”

The report, carried out by Advance Higher Education (HE), found that the gap between white and Black students achieving at least a 2:1 degree at university will not close until 2086 at the present rate. The report raises concerns and shows the slow progress the universities have made so far in closing the degree attainment gap for Black and ethnic minority students. 

The ‘gap’ being referred to is the disparity in the proportion of white students who were awarded a 1st or 2:1, compared to the proportion of Black and Ethnic Minority students awarded the same degree. In recent years, universities across the UK have faced significant pressure in being responsible for closing this gap, especially after an NUS  report in 2019 urged Universities to “accelerate their efforts.” 

In the newest findings, published in The Times last week, it concluded that annual equality data shows a 22.6 percentage point gap between white students awarded a first-class or 2:1 degree and their Black course mates. 

The report showed the gap specifically decremented Black students, as the disparity for people from Black African, Black Caribbean and other Black backgrounds, at 23.3, 19.2 and 24.4 points respectively, indicating a focus on attainment for Black students, not just ethnic groups under the ‘BAME’ label. 

The research from HE found the proportion of Black students awarded top degrees was 58.8 per cent, whereas twice as many white students were awarded a first, at 29.8 per cent compared with 14.9 per cent.

Gary Loke, Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery at Advance HE, said: “At a sector level, progress on narrowing the ethnicity gap continues to be slow.”

He called on universities to put in place actions to “dismantle structural inequality” in higher education, examining issues such as the diversity of staff and student support to address the gap.

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS), said: “University can transform the lives and careers of graduates, but we know that this is not happening for all students. As the data shows, over the last decade, there has been painfully slow progress in addressing the attainment gap between white and Black students.”

There have also been recent calls to ensure the responsibility of closing this attainment gap is lifted off the shoulders of Black students themselves. Daniel Akinbosede wrote in the Times Higher Education that “the most effective pathway is to change systems directly, rather than solely relying on labour-intensive collaboration from BAME students.” Controversy also exists over the generalizing and misleading nature of using the ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Groups) label when specifically addressing problems the Black community face.

Unfortunately, the situation isn’t too dissimilar in Leeds. In October 2019, The Gryphon found that Black students were awarded 1st class degrees at a rate that is four times less than white students in the academic year 2018-2019. The University’s most recent Access and Participation plan claimed there is “significant disparity in the proportion of BAME students attaining a 2:1 or above when compared to white students.”

However, the latest statistics are from 2017/18. The BAME Attainment section of the report cited for BAME students: “the gap between 2013/14 and 2017/2018 has risen from 11.6% to 12.7% with a three-year trend of this gap widening.” The report also acknowledged the “aggregation of ethnic groupings up to BAME level does mask larger disparities in attainment.”

Overall, it concluded an attainment gap of 28.9% between Black and white students at the University of Leeds who were awarded a 2:1 degree classification or above in 2017/18. Although these statistics are two years old, they show a 6.3% increase in the national percentage point gap. 

The Gryphon spoke to the University of Leeds, who provided the following statement: “Diversity and equal opportunity are hugely important to the University. We are wholly committed to closing the degree awarding gap, and have set clear targets for doing so in our Access and Participation Plan and forthcoming Access Strategy: to reduce the awarding gap to 5.5 per cent by 2025 and eradicate it by 2030.

The attainment gap between Black and white students is an issue across the UK, and our focus is on using data analysis and research to understand what is happening as well as to foster more discussion about race and barriers throughout the University. Work to ensure the curriculum is inclusive to students from all backgrounds is progressing and a framework for decolonising the curriculum will shortly be published.”

So, what are the proposed solutions on narrowing this gap from the University of Leeds? LUU stopped calling the gap between BAME students and non-BAME students “the BAME Attainment gap” in September 2019. Placing pressure on the University to take further action, it is hoped that the widening gap will be closed and pressure taken off Black students.

On a national scale, as Daniel Akinbosede’s poignant article highlights, ultimately, universities must look in the mirror and address the perpetuation of whiteness as normality. His article also stresses a call to review how this data is analysed. Kingston University’s approach has been praised, as it transforms the way that attainment gap data are analysed, basing them on the academic potential of Black students, rather than their proximity to white attainment.

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