“Let’s work together to make a difference”: Freedom to Achieve co-creation events and our four underpinning themes

On 29 January and 1 February the Freedom to Achieve project team hosted a co-creation event for students and staff at DMU to explore, discuss and share ideas of how to effect the eradication of the attainment gap. These two mirror events were well attended by students and staff from across the faculties, range of subject areas and levels of study. The mood of the events was both positive and uplifting, students commented on the inspiring nature of these events and expressed a feeling of gratitude that DMU were openly tackling the national issue of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) attainment gap. Research suggests DMU is one of a handful of institutions to take a transparent and direct approach to this issue and consult their students directly about this matter, offering them the opportunity to share their ideas and co-create approaches to close the gap, exactly what these co-creation events were all about.

Attending these meetings were students and staff from forty programmes across the University, selected to be part of this HEFCE funded, multi-institutional project. Students and staff were asked to share their ideas and experiences at DMU in relation to four core themes (below). According to the research literature these themes house potential barriers to the achievement of higher class degrees (first and 2:1) by BAME students as compared with the degree class predicted by their entry grades. The following questions and details were used as prompts to spark thought and elicit information from those in attendance.

  1. Curriculum: Does your curriculum help your belief in your own ability, encourage personal aspirations and cultural awareness? Are you able to see yourself reflected in the curriculum and establish a strong connection with your programme of study?
  2. Environment: learning and living spaces on campus, feel and culture, enabling a sense of connection, confidence and belonging
  3. Developmentacademic and personal: aiming high, liberating your possible and imagined self, the sky is the limit! Giving you the confidence to believe you can achieve as well as ensuring you have the skills and experience you need to open doors to the wider world.
  4. Community and belonging – being a student at DMU, feeling you matter, belong and are supported. Knowing you are a part of a wider community and have a valued role to play and contribution to make to that community.

Further co-creation workshops investigating these themes are being piloted with a sample of the 40 project programmes. This gives students and staff a discipline focussed opportunity to share their thoughts and experience with regard to actions and approaches required to eliminate the BAME attainment gap.

So, where have these themes come from? After a literature search on the subject of diversity and attainment in Higher Education the results very much pointed to these core themes. For example:  Cousin and Cureton (2012) identify four categories of “causal explanation” (King’s College, London ARC Network and The University of Manchester (2015) ) which are:

1 Students’ experience of learning and teaching in HE: This equates to our curriculum theme.

  1. Psycho-social identity factors including expectation of student performance and achievement of both academics and the students themselves. Such expectations can be self-limiting and a barrier to learning and achievement. This equates to our environment theme where role models, positive images, a reflection of cultural self and inclusion raise aspirations and enable achievement.
  2. 3. Relationships: relate to our community and belonging theme as students need a sense of social belonging to their institution, their faculty, their subject and their fellow students to encourage and enhance engagement and development both academic and personal.
  3. 4. Cultural and social capital relates to our personal and academic development theme. This acknowledges that students require their own bank of social and cultural capital (influenced by family backgrounds, lived experience and education) to achieve in certain professional and academic environments. DMU’s many initiatives from DMU Global, DMU volunteering, Frontrunners, DSU Societies, DMU Local and the curriculum all impact positively on our students social and cultural capital.

Campaigns at other Institutions such as “Why is my curriculum white?”  (UCL 2014) have highlighted the issue, relevance and effect of a white Eurocentric curriculum on a diverse student body. This campaign called for a more global representation within the curriculum to aid learning, relevance and an increased connectivity for BAME students. The “Why isn’t my professor black?” (UCL 2014) flagged up the issue of the lack of BAME representation on University staff and thus the lack of availability of role models and the ensuing effect on BAME aspiration. This closely links with our personal and academic development theme teamed with a feeling of belonging.

Interestingly these themes connect with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs particularly with the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where social and love needs must be met on the way to “self-actualisation”. Thus our students need that sense of belonging to help achieve their full potential. This in turn feeds in to the essential development of confidence and self-esteem again enabling achievement , creativity and problem solving within self-actualisation.

Image shared under a creative commons license by FireflySixtySeven, CC BY-SA 4.0


Cousin, G. and Cureton, D. (2012) Disparities in student attainment,  (DISA) York HEA in King’s College, London, ARC Network and The University of Manchester (2015) Causes of differences in student outcomes , London, Hefce

King’s College, London, ARC Network and The University of Manchester (2015) Causes of differences in student outcomes , London, Hefce, p28

Maslow, A. H. (1943) A theory of human motivation, Psychological review, 50, 370-396

Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change. Final report from the What works? Student retention and success programme, London, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, HEFCE, Higher Education Academy and Action on Access