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.

The Entrepreneurial University

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Excellent inaugural lecture last night by UWE Bristol’s Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, who I am very pleased to welcome to the University.

Dylan explored questions such as what it means to be an entrepreneurial university, what are the main barriers and how can we do more to nurture the enterprising and entrepreneurial graduates that are critical to our country’s economic growth and social development.

With the majority of new jobs being created by companies under five years old, we can see why this is so important. But this isn’t just about creating entrepreneurs – it is much bigger than that. It is about nurturing an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’. We know that graduates are entering a rapidly changing world, where technologies beyond our current imagination, are creating jobs that we have not even thought of yet. In this environment, all graduates will need to demonstrate the enterprising attributes that Dylan spoke of – such as being action-oriented, persistent, self-determined and agile.

This is a key part of UWE Bristol’s Strategy 2020 and what it means to be a UWE Bristol graduate. Making this the lived experience for all our students is a major priority for this University.

I look forward to working with Dylan, colleagues across the University, businesses and organisations as we really drive the enterprise agenda forward, from what is a very strong base. Our innovation networks have already supported over 700 SMEs, the Graduate Talent West portal provides access to our 6,000 graduates each year (led by UWE Bristol with Business West, the LEP and other universities in the region), we run one of the largest paid internship programmes in the country, and 47% of our expenditure is with SMEs (above the government’s target of 25% for the public sector).

As Dylan stressed, this isn’t about universities working on their own. It is about universities working with businesses, local and regional organisations, and policy makers to create the experiences and rich environments where ideas and innovations can flourish.

Today, I am very pleased to say we have moved a major step further, winning funding to set up one of four ‘University Enterprise Zones’ to be supported by BIS, providing a business ‘hatchery’, incubation and grow on space for businesses specialised in robotics, biosciences, biomedicine and other high tech areas. The Zone is expected to generate over 500 new jobs, and more than £50m for the local economy.  It has been developed in collaboration with the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership and the University of Bristol with strong support from South Gloucestershire Council, the University of Bath and the West of England Academic Heath Science Network. 

The world we are living in is changing a pace. Collaboration, enterprise and an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ are essential – and right at the forefront of our thinking at UWE Bristol.

The most important investment we can make

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Investment in education is the most important investment we can make.

That was one of the main messages delivered by John Cridland CBE, Director-General of the CBI, at our annual Bolland lecture this week.

He also stressed the importance of business-university collaborations, suggesting it should be natural for any business to ‘twin’ with its university, praising UWE Bristol’s achievements as an entrepreneurial university.

He was particularly impressed with the calibre of our students on our BA Business (Team Entrepreneurship) and the innovative approach we have taken, which sees students learn by setting-up and running their own team company that will earn money finding and completing real projects for real organisations. Students from the programme have already been to the Houses of Parliament twice in the last four months, invited to provide evidence to government on future leaders and entrepreneurship.

Only last month, we saw our entrepreneurial students launch a crowdfunding campaign to bring to market an innovative 3D printer accessory. OmniDynamics smashed their target on kickstarter in less than 24 hours and have attracted some serious coverage in the technology world.

We also discussed our strong engagement with the thriving SME sector in the Bristol city region, through leading regional innovation networks in key growth sectors, running our £4m innovation for growth programme, and of course through the placements, project work, internships, and the highly skilled talent pipeline our students provide. UWE Bristol already has one of the largest paid internship programmes in the higher education sector – run largely with SMEs – we offer Enterprise Internships to support our students to become the entrepreneurs of the future, and earlier this month we launched our Green Internships which will help businesses to develop green policies and practices. Many of these initiatives are thanks to our award winning Employability and Enterprise Service, which was recognised earlier this year as the best in the sector at the NUE awards.  

Our plans for the future are ambitious. Earlier this month we were one of only 20 universities in the UK to be awarded the Small Business Charter, which not only recognises the enormous amount of work we already do with small businesses in the region, but also means that we can access funds to increase our support for business growth.

But most importantly, UWE Bristol boasts one of the most impressive employment records in the higher education sector, being recognised by the Telegraph as one of the top 8 universities to go to for getting a job. That means working successfully with employers and business to widen the reach of transformational opportunities to maximise the potential of individuals, so they can realise their ambitions – as business leader, entrepreneur, practitioner and professional – which of course also brings huge benefits right across our society.

Fostering student innovation and entrepreneurship

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What role do universities play in fostering student innovation and entrepreneurship? That was one of the questions posed to our panel today at the annual Guardian Forum event. This is a critical agenda – our capacity for innovation will be key to our overall competitiveness and productivity in the UK, as much of the Western world enters into a period of economic recovery. 

We already know that 80% of new jobs are in high-skill areas, placing universities and our graduates at the heart of the future workforce.

But, it will be the innovation and enterprise aptitude of our graduates that will be most central to the UK’s success. It will be how we exploit new technologies – such as graphene, composite materials, or the use of robotics – that will determine our future.

This is one area where there is a clear cross-party consensus! But we need to push this further – to ensure that our ideas of a successful graduate outcome, and those of the government and the public, are not constrained to securing a traditional ‘graduate job’.

Clearly as a sector, there is a differing emphasis placed on this across universities. And there are a variety of interesting ideas out there that will be more relevant or practical to some institutions rather than others – such as having a venture capital fund to invest in student start-ups, or using crowd-sourcing technology to engage partners and identify where to invest.

At UWE Bristol we are ideally placed as a regional hub for innovation and enterprise. We are located in a thriving and ambitious city-region, with a LEP that has been credited as the best in the country.

Whilst many universities can point to incubator spaces, enterprise internships and funding, student enterprise societies (at UWE Bristol – UWE InnovEnters and Enactus), workshops and masterclasses, and one-to-one advice, it is in embedding enterprise activity into the curriculum where the real wins can be made.

This year at UWE Bristol we introduced an exceptionally innovative new programme – Business (Team Entrepreneurship) – which challenges traditional ideas about a degree. Students work in a high-tech hub rather than a classroom, they have coaching sessions and workshops rather than compulsory lectures – and it is running a real business that drives the students’ learning.

The students love the programme. It has inspired and engaged those that might have previously been put off by the traditional format of many university courses. And already, some of our students have been to parliament to contribute to a report on future leaders and entrepreneurship. This is a great model that we are learning from across the University.

Indeed, I think it prompts us all to consider how we best foster the entrepreneurial spirit in our students – after all they are the leaders and shapers of the future.