The Attainment Gap

Nationally, the attainment gap between white students and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students obtaining first-class and 2:1 degrees is 13.2% (AdvanceHE 2019).

We use the term BAME here to reflect its prominence in the Higher Education literature, though recognise and appreciate that not all individuals wish to be identified by this term. It is also important to highlight that BAME is not a homogenous group and that great variation exists across different ethnicities. Whilst a larger gap exists for students of African (26%), Caribbean (22.5%) and Pakistani backgrounds (14.3%), it is much smaller than the national average for students of Indian (5.2%), Chinese (4.3%) and Mixed heritage (3.7%). This variation illustrates the complexities of using terms such as BAME, and their tendency to obscure the needs of specific ethnic groups.

Historically, the prevalent counter to these data has been to identify the cause of the issue as related to the students’ background. This is referred to as the deficit model – ‘a view that the problem lies with the students and that it is some attribute of the student that means they attain less well, rather than because of an institutional factor such as curriculum design/development’ (Millar 2016). This perspective causes issues for addressing the attainment gap as it shifts the focus away from what the institution can do and places the onus on the student to fix the issue. Recent research has also proven this perspective unfounded, as even when a range of factors are controlled for, including prior attainment, an unexplained difference still occurs between BAME and white students (Broecke and Nicholls 2007).

Nationally, students themselves have become increasingly vocal on the issue, launching campaigns such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ and ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’.  These campaigns helped to bring greater depth to the conversation around the attainment gap, highlighting the colonial traditions of the university as an institution and querying why these principles are still upheld across universities.

Whist students’ degree outcomes sparked the debate over the attainment gap, it is important to remember that student experience is much broader than grades alone. As more and more BAME students enter university it is crucial that university life is representative of all students, and not just those of a white background. Greater cultural inclusivity in the curriculum has been seen to increase students’ sense of belonging, alongside retention and attainment (NUS 2011).

DMU are determined to support actions that will assist in the reduction of the attainment gap. 

For further reading on the attainment gap and related subjects across the UK, full reports from different studies as well as articles, including ones mentioned on this page, can be found at these links:

NUS and UUK Joint Report (2019)

Why do black students quit university more often than their white peers? (2018)

Equality in higher education: staff statistical report 2017 (2017)

University of Sheffield BME Attainment Gap Literature Review (2016)

Does your university produce racism? (2016)

Causes of Difference in Student Outcomes (2015)

Liberation, Equality and Diversity in the Curriculum (2015)

Black and minority ethnic (BME) students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success (2011)

NUS Race for Equality (2011)