Advance HE has published data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) on the size of these gaps since the academic year 2003/04, showing relatively little change for more than 16 years (Advance HE, 2020).
Jonathan Neves, Advance HE Head of Business Intelligence & Surveys, said, “This report represents some of the most comprehensive analysis conducted to date, identifying beyond reasonable doubt that a clear awarding gap, particularly in terms of awarding first class degrees, remains even after controlling for a range of demographic and institutional differences. However, there is also clear evidence that the gap was lower in 2019/20, during the first year of the pandemic. We hope that the evidence and analysis in this report will help support continued commitment across the sector to deliver positive outcomes for all.”
- The white-Black, Asian and minority ethnic awarding gap (the difference in proportions of white and Black, Asian and minority ethnic students awarded a first/2:1 degree) was 9.9 percentage points in the academic year 2019/20.
- This awarding gap has persisted at least since Advance HE’s first statistical report in 2005, and progress in reducing the gap has been slow.
- Between 2018/19 and 2019/20, the largest decrease in the awarding gap was recorded. The gap fell 3.4 percentage points, compared to an average fall of 0.3 percentage points in previous years. A much higher proportion of all qualifiers received first/2:1 degrees in the most recent year. This year marked the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant policy responses from March 2020, which led to changes in assessment practices across UK HEIs. The decrease in the white- Black, Asian and minority ethnic awarding gap possibly reflects the greater and, as some would claim, fairer and more flexible use of results from coursework and continuous exams to determine awards. It is unclear, though, whether this signals a new trend.
- Much of the overall awarding gaps were driven by gaps in awards of first-class degrees. 38.9% of white qualifiers and 28.6% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic qualifiers were awarded a first-class degree, which represents a gap of 10.2 percentage points between the two groups.
- When we disaggregated the gap, white students, on average, received higher awards than students from all other ethnic groups. The awarding gap was particularly pronounced for qualifiers from Black African (19.0 percentage points), Black Caribbean (16.5 percentage points) and other Black backgrounds (22.3 percentage points) compared to white qualifiers. Overall, the gap between Black and white qualifiers was 18.7 percentage points. The degree-awarding gap was narrower for Chinese (2.8 percentage points), ‘mixed-ethnicity’ (3.9 percentage points) and Asian Indian qualifiers (2.8 percentage points).
- Overall, awarding gaps were larger for qualifiers who studied part-time, who studied a non-SET (science, engineering and technology) subject, and who entered their first-degree undergraduate programme with an HE qualification (e.g. foundation degree).
- The awarding gap varied considerably across institutions, ranging from non-existent or very small at three institutions to more than 20 percentage points at 16 institutions.
- The awarding gap was larger for qualifiers studying at an institution in England, at smaller institutions, and at institutions with a higher overall proportion of students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. The gap was smaller at Russell Group institutions compared to institutions in other (or no) mission group(s).
- Results from regression analyses showed that, overall, awarding gaps decreased, but persisted, even after controlling for qualifiers’ individual and institutional characteristics.1 When all of these differences across qualifiers from different ethnic groups were accounted for, awarding gaps ranged from 1.7 to 8.9 percentage points.
‘Minding’ the ethnicity awarding gap in UK HE
As we launch the “Ethnicity awarding gaps in UK higher education in 2019/20” report, Panagiota (Peny) Sotiropoulou, Advance HE mixed-methods researcher, shares her thoughts on the main findings.
It’s been 10 years since the Equality Challenge Unit and Higher Education Academy published their report, providing Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) with suggestions and practical examples on how to support Black, Asian and minority ethnic students to improve their degree outcomes and achieve parity with their white peers. It would be fair to say that both policy and academic research interest around Black, Asian and minority ethnic students’ experiences and outcomes have since gained significant momentum, with a major focus on the ethnic disparities in ‘good’ degree outcomes (e.g. Universities UK and NUS, 2019; Wong, ElMorraly and Copsey-Blake, 2021). This is aptly reflected by the Office for Student’s sector-wide key performance target “to eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between white students and black students by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31” (OfS 2018, 4)
So, the big question is: have we made any progress? Although at Advance HE we have been publishing figures and commentaries related to the size of ethnicity awarding gaps (the difference in proportions of white and Black, Asian and minority ethnic students awarded a first/2:1 degree) since 2005 as part of our annual EDI statistical report for students, this is the first time that we have published a full report dedicated to exploring ethnicity awarding gaps in detail. Building upon the 2019 report of Universities UK and the National Student Union, we explore awarding gaps across individual and course-level characteristics for the 2019-20 cohort of qualifiers. This is key information for the wider sector, as findings presented in this report provide an up-to-date picture of the extent of the issue, offering additional evidence for the need for action and leading to suggestions on how HEIs could most effectively address this phenomenon.
Ethnicity awarding gaps: What does the data tell us?
Let’s start with the more difficult news. The white-Black, Asian and minority ethnic awarding gap still exists, calculated at 9.9 percentage points for the academic year 2019/20. Most concerningly, the gap remains significantly unexplained, even after accounting for a series of individual, course-specific and institutional characteristics. There is some positive news, as well, though. Between 2018/19 and 2019/20, there was the largest decrease in the awarding gap ever recorded. The gap was reduced by 3.4 percentage points, compared to an average fall of 0.3 percentage points in previous years. The decrease in the white-Black, Asian and minority ethnic awarding gap possibly reflects the greater (and, as some would claim, fairer and more flexible) use of results from coursework and continuous exams to determine qualification awards in 2019/20, as a result of the ‘no detriment’ policies adopted by many UK HEIs in an attempt to accommodate for the impact of Covid-19 on students’ performance and experience. As similar guidance for assessment on awarding qualifications was still in place for the 2020/21 academic year for some providers, it still remains to be seen if there will be a further reduction in the attainment gap and, most importantly, if this will become a trend for the years to come.
Disaggregating the Black Asian minority ethnic awarding gap: within-group and contextual differences
Breaking data further down than the overarching Black Asian minority ethnic categorisation is absolutely crucial to better understand within-group differences and distance ourselves from essentialist thinking, according to which minority ethnic individuals are a homogeneous population. Our report shows that, while white students receive higher awards than students from all other ethnic groups, the highest gap is noted between white students and those identifying with the ‘Black other’ category (22.3 percentage points), with the overall Black-white qualifiers’ awarding gap being at 18.7 percentage points. Contrastingly, Chinese and Asian Indian qualifiers had the narrowest awarding gaps compared to their white peers, both at 2.8 percentage points lower. Based on these figures, it seems highly unlikely that OfS above mentioned target to totally eliminate ethnicity awarding gaps within the next few years will be met.
Apart from the fact that awarding gaps differ substantially between students from different ethnic backgrounds, they also do so across different courses and institutions. In terms of course characteristics, our analysis shows that, overall, awarding gaps are larger for part-time student qualifiers and those graduating from a non-SET (Science, Engineering and Technology) subject. In terms of institutional characteristics, gaps are larger in England, at smaller institutions, and at those with a higher proportion of students from a Black Asian minority ethnic background. It is also worth mentioning that the gap was smaller at Russell Group institutions compared to institutions in other (or no) mission group(s).
What does this all mean?
There is clearly still much to do to close the ethnicity awarding gap. The question is – how do we do it? First and foremost, there is no single one characteristic upon which HEIs can focus for narrowing ethnicity awarding gaps. What we certainly know is that we need to move away from deficit-thinking approaches, according to which ethnicity awarding gaps are reducible to individual differences inherent between students from different ethnic backgrounds. In my view, ethnicity awarding gaps are manifestations of wider structural inequities in place. Thus, for real progress to occur and be sustained, senior leadership and management of HEIs should continue to work address these inequalities and strategically co-plan meaningful actions with their staff and students, spanning from widening participation to more inclusive curricula. However, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ fix. Institutions should be encouraged to take time to understand and reflect upon their own awarding gaps to tailor their interventions. However, this problem-solving process does not have to begin from scratch. Good practice examples and successful case studies have begun to be systematically organised and shared through designated organisational webpages (see for example TASO – Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education and OfS). So, let’s strongly encourage institutions to make use of the resources and data available to them to start their targeted planning driven by a common overarching aim; to turn ethnicity awarding gaps into a thing of the past.
Panagiota (Peny) Sotiropoulou has recently joined Advance HE as a mixed-methods researcher. Her main interests lie in EDI considerations in HE. She is an expert on equity-driven multicultural education for social justice and enjoys getting involved with project evaluation and co-creation with partners.