BME attainment: why universities must do more than ‘mind the gap’

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June 2018 saw the launch of a joint initiative between Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to bolster university attainment and improve the university experience of black and minority ethnic (BME) students in the UK. Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of West England, Bristol, says his institution is running initiatives that will create a more inclusive and supportive environment.

All universities aim to do their very best for their students.

Many have a version of this ambition as a mission statement, or say it is at the core of what they do. Despite this widespread commitment, the facts suggest that more needs to be done to enable students from all backgrounds to get good grades and move into well paid, fulfilling employment after graduating.

This is particularly the case where black and minority ethnic students are concerned: attainment gaps of more than 20% are common between minority students and other groups.

As I recently told a group of students and university representatives exploring the issue in Bristol, this is an area where the sector is doing ‘stuff’ without cutting through in a way that delivers results. This is seen in the individual student stories, and through the data that institutions collect.

A long-standing challenge

Listening to those who attended the evidence gathering session in Bristol – [one of five organised by UUK and the NUS] to look at how to tackle this issue – it’s clear that more needs to be done.

We know that BME students experience greater financial challenges at university than other groups. We are also aware that university leadership teams are not representative of the student body and that some curriculums do not reflect minority groups’ experiences. These areas need to be prioritised and addressed if the attainment gap is to be tackled.

It was heartening, therefore, to hear the ideas put forward at the session at UWE Bristol. Some of these ideas were practical, covering areas like training for staff and those who study with us. Others were cultural, playing into conversations about how organisations can set the standard for what is acceptable, and challenge language and behaviour that doesn’t reach this bar.

Crucially, there’s a question over leadership, and recognition that addressing this challenge is integral to creating a fairer, more prosperous society. Without that commitment from the top, those mission statements will seem empty.

Hope for the future

Some positive work is already happening at UWE Bristol to address these issues, including our successful Equity programme, which provides BME students with leadership development, access to role models, and opportunities to network with leading employers. Those who have participated in the programme have told us it made a huge difference, and we believe that Equity has created a blueprint that others could follow.

We are also taking significant steps towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, through initiatives that aim to create a more open, tolerant and supportive culture across the whole university.

With one in four students at UWE Bristol coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, we are proud that the university’s student population reflects the communities in which it is based. We are absolutely determined to ensure that students from all backgrounds and all parts of our community can succeed by studying with us.

The evidence gathered from the UUK-NUS sessions will be crucial for understanding why this issue persists in universities today, and provides an opportunity for us to tackle it together. The case for reducing the attainment gap for BME students is undeniable: by working with students, staff and other universities, I’m confident we can deliver the change that needs to happen.

This blog first appeared on the Universities UK website on 13 November 2018.

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