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.

Civic Leadership, Innovation and Economic Growth

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With the run up to the General Election in May and the growing debate around devolution and cities, it was very timely to speak at the UUK Conference ‘Powering the Knowledge Economy: Universities, Cities and Innovation’ today.

We need to think broadly about how we power the knowledge economy and this is not simply limited to local economic growth. It is about much more, including public learning, civic spirit, and community-based innovation. It is also about businesses playing their role in education, community and society, and being part of, rather than outside, the civic and place-based leadership agendas.

I see a major part of my role and that of the University, as facilitating a joined up approach to problem-solving, so that we are really focusing on the key issues for the region and achieving the best outcomes, rather than simply viewing things through the lens or field in which we happen to work. The key issues of today and the future are highly complex – they cannot be addressed through one sector or sphere of society working alone.

We have some great examples of where this has really worked to bring about opportunities for the whole city-region, including the collaboration that won Bristol recognition as European Green Capital 2015. Bristol also won funding for one of the UK’s first four University Enterprise Zones, led by UWE Bristol and to be located on our Frenchay campus, which will support the next generation of companies in the areas of robotics, biosciences, biomedicine and other hi-tech areas. Both universities are also working very closely with businesses and the health sector on driving forward innovations on the assisted living agenda, diagnostics and telemedicine – particularly important for a society with an aging population and very relevant to all our lives.

This is all in addition, of course, to universities powering the knowledge economy through addressing skills shortages and providing learning opportunities that transform the futures of individuals, families, and communities. We know that 80% of new jobs will be in high-skill areas so access to opportunities and different pathways to higher skills is absolutely critical – involving collaboration across universities, educational providers, businesses, the public sector, community organisations and professional bodies.

Universities think and operate long term. They are also politically neutral and represent many sectors and sections of their locality and region. This makes them well placed to be anchors for their region – joining up across the various elements of a place, coordinating and developing the high-level opportunities and catalysts that will really shape the future. That was the focus of my speech today.

In the heated public policy debate ahead of the General Election it may be that university voices are more important than ever. Universities can and should shine a light on what is possible and lead the way by building the bridges, networks and capacity to deliver.