The ‘Race’ Attainment Gap

The Gap

The ‘Race’ Attainment Gap refers to the higher chance White students in Higher Education have of getting a 1st or 2:1 degree compared to their Black, Asian, Minoritized Ethnic (BAME) counterparts. Nationally, the latest data shows White students are 13% more likely to be awarded these grades compared to BAME students, although this increases to 23% when looking at Black students specifically.

Here at Leeds Beckett University, at our school of social sciences, data shows that there is a 23% attainment gap between White and BAME students (Craig, personal communication; 2019). This is higher than the national average of 13% and is not broken down to focus on Black students specifically (who face a larger gap nationally). Alarmingly, it seems to have increased from just 4% (in 2014/15). In addition, our data suggests gender-, disability- and class- attainment gaps have either significantly narrowed over this period of time or do not exist.

The gap explained

We purportedly control for entry grades when students begin their studies and provide foundational teaching in the first year of degrees to ‘catch up’ any student struggling. We should therefore be concerned that a gap exists when students leave us determined by their ‘race’.  It suggests that during the usual 3 years of students’ time with us, something is going wrong.

Akala (2018) brilliantly rebuts the dangerous idea that this is BAME students failing to ‘attain’ in his book ‘Natives’. He highlights the racism BAME students face in schools in particular as leading to the attainment gap later (and incidentally notes Black students actually perform remarkably well in education despite this – but the performance isn’t recognised): (pg. 244): 

  • “To recap, the odds stacked against black children in British schools, black students are:
    • Under- assessed at 5 (under assessed mean teachers do not put black students forward for higher tier assessments like they do white students).
    • Dramatically under-assessed at 11
    • Significantly less likely to be entered for higher-tier exams when they have the same previous academic attainment
    • 2.6 times more likely to be expelled even when control factors are taken into account” (pg. 244)

Akala (2018). Natives. Two Roads: London.

Secondly and relatedly – this attainment/awarding gap exists in universities controlling for prior attainment. As Omar Khan from the Runnymede Trust notes: 

The university attainment gap cannot be explained by “prior attainment”, or how well pupils did at school. Even the highest performing ethnic minority A level pupils – those achieving 4 As – are less likely to get a first or 2:1 at university compared to their white peers” (para 4; Khan, 2019).

Khan, O. (2019)

This has led some to justifiably rename the attainment gap the ‘awarding gap’.

This gap is of course only one proxy of racism. But it is a significant one and one that is highly relevant to us working in HE. Degree classifications can determine future study, earnings and career. These are important mechanisms of wider social mobility and inequality. 

The gap in context

Critical Race Theory (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001; Harris, 2012) refers to the collective intellectual roadmap produced by anti-racist legal scholars. It helps us understand how ‘race’ inequalities such as attainment gaps come about. Specifically, the theorists argue that ‘race’ is a social construction (an arbitrary system of human classification with little to no grounding in meaningful biological or physical differences), that racism can only be undone by forgoing colour blindness (meaning we must talk about ‘race’ and let go of the harmful idea that everyone is already equal) and that racism is endemic and structural. We believe this theory is essential in guiding anti-racist action. With regard to the attainment gap it suggests that the ‘race’ of our students matters not because ‘race’ exists but because currently there are barriers a student will face based on their ‘race’, and that institutions including Higher Education can bolster racism leaving it to be endemic.

Five sobering and relevant examples of institutional contemporary racism should be noted here. First, data produced by the Department of Work and Pensions (2010) show that at all ages a British person is more likely to live in a poorer household if they are BAME than if they are White. Secondly, an audit by the UK Government in 2015/16 has found more BAME British people unemployed or in the “lowest” skilled occupations than White British people. Third, research (some of which produced by the Department of Work and Pensions) found that identical CVs, with the same qualifications, work experience and addresses, sent to different employers around the UK of different sectors, were much more likely to be invited to interviewed if they had a recognizably White sounding name (e.g., Andrew Thompson) than if they had a ‘Black’ sounding name or a ‘Muslim’ sounding name. Fourth, almost four out of five hate crimes are racially motivated (as opposed to being motivated by other oppressions e.g., homophobia) according to government statistics and in 2016/17 there was a 33% increase of these since 2015/16. Fifth and closer to home, although data on BAME students experiences in HE is patchy, NUS (2012) has found that 42% of around 1,000 BAME students surveyed reported that their curriculum doesn’t reflect diversity, equality and discrimination and 34% stated they felt “unable to bring their perspective as a Black student to lectures and tutor meetings”.

What can we do? Decolonizing the curriculum

The student-led, Decolonising the Curriculum movement encourages us to think about how our curriculums, that is our formally standardised topics, often set against subject benchmarks; our discipline specific traditions and sets of knowledge; and our authoritative sources, emerged through what Sullivan and Tuana (2007) call ‘epistemologies of ignorance’.  Our curriculums have developed through the prioritisation of White, European knowledge systems which are invested in racializing practices. Further, they fail to recognise knowledges developed in the ‘global south’.  In order to begin to decolonise our curriculums we must first recognise the ways in which our world, our institutions and our disciplines are shaped by legacies of colonialism and acknowledge that this has an impact on our students’ learning. We must de-centre the White, European ‘canon’. In research, course design and lesson planning, we need to draw on a range of resources which include diverse, global perspectives and Black scholars and scholars of Colour. We must be more inclusive in our teaching and assessment methods in order to support a broad range of student backgrounds, experiences, abilities and learning styles.  The impetus is also upon us to redress the epistemological whiteness within our disciplines, through our own research. We must be more reflexive about our positionality and privilege, whose stories and experiences we present as knowledge and use our work to problematise the entrenched coloniality.  The colonised curriculum has ben established over hundreds of years. It is not only a UK problem, but a global one. It is not a problem we can solve immediately but we can start to make changes that will improve our students’ experiences at Leeds Beckett University and begin to address one of the factors that impacts upon the student attainment gap.

What else can we do?

Recently, we ran a short workshop for our school’s learning and teaching day. We wanted to consider with colleagues what we could do to close the attainment gap at three levels. We used the following questions to prompt us

At the classroom level:

  • How do/might we asses abilities/comfort/confidence levels in the classroom? (Lecture, seminar, one to one)
  • How do racialised dynamics manifest within the classroom? Discuss potential strategies for planning/managing this? (E.g. discussion of particular topics? Comments from non-BPOC students?)
  • How might student’s lived experiences be brought into the classroom in ways that facilitate critical thinking/learning?

At a module level:

  • Does the module content make assumptions about the students background, level of knowledge, mindset, prior learning etc. Who is presented as the normative group within/who is presented as the other/the ‘studied’? 
  • Are there any topics on the module that could cause discomfort/trauma to BPOC students? What are they? What can be introduced into module content to manage/mitigate harm?
  • Who are the key authors on the reading list? Does the reading list offer a diverse range of perspectives? Do students have the opportunity to be critical of perceived authoritative knowledge? 

At an institutional level:

  • How do we advocate for a staff body that is diverse and anti-racist? (E.g., consider the suggestion by some (e.g., Johnson, 2002) that university job criteria needs changing in order to hire the right educators. Or consider ring fencing guest lecturer money for those with expertise/lived experience on racism)
  • How do we promote anti-racism as a university? (E.g., consider what we purchase / invest in e.g., arms companies, sweatshop produced garments & electronics, consider international students’ experiences, consider what reasonable adjustments if any should we make for BAME students).
  • What can we do as an institution to break down racism beyond the university? (E.g., consider sanctuary scholarships, dedicated hardship funds)).

The below images are the flipcharts produced in the short discussion groups.

Conclusion and further resources

The session we ran was short. It was not enough time to begin to do this issue justice. But we hoped is the start of an important conversation and action about how and what we teach and the impact that this can have on student attainment within an increasingly diverse university context.  We hope that the resource list will be a useful prompt for us to evaluate our modules and classroom practices and begin the work of decolonising our minds, our disciplines and our classrooms.   There are a number of helpful toolkits listed that have been developed by students involved with the Decolonising the Curriculum movement around the country. Please get in touch with any questions, comments or to be kept up to date with developments or events pertaining to the continuation of this work. /

Resource list


Anti-Racism in Universities Resources

Leeds Beckett Resources


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