We’re failing students unless closing the attainment gap is a priority

mind the gap

Today sees the publication of a joint report by Universities UK and the National Union of Students into a critical issue affecting the higher education sector – the attainment gap between Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and white students.

It shouldn’t need stating, but it is simply unacceptable that race and ethnicity should have any bearing on how well a student does in their degree. Unlocking potential and advancing knowledge are surely the key missions of higher education – and these must be regardless of a person’s background.

Yet the stark reality is, white students graduating in 2017-18 were 13 per cent more likely to achieve a first or 2:1 degree than those from BAME backgrounds. As Baroness Amos says in her introduction to the report, we can’t afford to be complacent about this inequality any longer.

The spotlight needs to be put on this issue and the recommendations set out by UUK and the NUS provide a useful framework for the sector as a whole to tackle it.

The report rightly highlights the crucial role of university leadership in driving progress. I was pleased to be part of a Vice-Chancellor’s working group that provided feedback and a strategic view on the role senior leaders can play in helping to accelerate progress in closing the attainment gap. In order to have a meaningful impact, I strongly believe a commitment to addressing this issue has to be embedded and embraced across an institution as a whole.

Closing the attainment gap is an institutional priority here at Kingston University. Our work in this area starts at board level, where addressing the BAME attainment gap has been a key performance indicator (KPI) since 2015. This is driven by the senior leadership team and goes right through to the development of our inclusive curriculum. It informs decisions on how our courses are delivered, and ensures students see themselves reflected in what and how they are taught, removing barriers to success. Our course design is also influenced by feedback from students who are paid inclusive curriculum consultants.

Staff are encouraged to address inclusivity and their good practice case studies are shared and celebrated through the award of inclusive curriculum grants. Our economics course now also includes the story of capitalism through voices from developing countries, and politics staff have changed the curriculum to introduce political thought from around the world.

In our healthcare faculty, nursing academics consulted with students about their uniforms to make sure they not only meet the health and safety needs of patients, but also the religious and cultural needs of students.

Another of the key recommendations in the report is the need to take a more rigorous approach through gathering and analysing data. My view is that we need to see universities taking this further, using data to track progress and develop evidence-based interventions that make a real difference.

At Kingston University we’ve developed a metric that highlights the unexplained gaps in attainment for white and BAME students by taking into account a student’s entry qualifications and degree subject.

If one of our courses doesn’t hit this ‘value added’ target – the principle measure of progress we devised to tackle BAME attainment – our systems automatically identify this as an area that requires action. This includes providing support to the course team to understand and address the reasons for the gap. Developing such a system is undoubtedly a big piece of work, but if it is important enough to an institution it can be done – it’s a matter of making it a priority and investing resources where they are needed. Indeed, we have been working with several universities on sharing this value added approach and would like to see this embraced more widely by the sector.

While the recommendations in this report are welcome, and will hopefully go some way towards ensuring it is not just a handful of universities doing the heavy lifting on access and attainment, there is also an important role for government and the Office for Students.

Introducing measures that truly recognise and reward universities for the progress they make in tackling this inequality in degree success through the likes of the Teaching Excellence Framework and independent league tables would demonstrate the value they place on diversity and inclusivity and help deliver the genuine step change we need – for the good of our students and society as a whole.


Kingston University’s Vice-Chancellor Steven Spier has blogged for Wonkhe in UniversitiesUK and NUS’s report “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment at UK Universities: #ClosingtheGap”

Further reading