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.

Education for Sustainable Development

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I am very proud that today we are hosting the launch of the QAA and HEA guidance for higher education providers on Education for Sustainable Development.

Over the last 20 years UWE Bristol has developed policy, strategy and plans to address its environmental and sustainability impacts. We have of course covered the management of conventional impacts across our campuses – for example in relation to energy, waste and water etc… But clearly our biggest sustainability impact arises from the actions of our students, staff and graduates. 

As higher education providers we have a very important role in nurturing the leaders and citizens who will go on to shape the world around us. Our Strategy 2020 picks up this theme very clearly as we are working to ensure our ‘graduates are ready and able to realise their full potential, make a positive contribution to society and their chosen field of employment or further study, and play their full part in the development of a sustainable global society and knowledge economy.’

That is why we have really worked to embed Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) throughout the University. This is about the contribution that we can make to this agenda through our learning and teaching. 

A typical graduate has about 50 to 60 years of life expectancy post-graduation. The skills, knowledge and attributes that they develop at University will impact positively or negatively across their whole lifetime. 

A positive impact is much more likely if we can help our students to develop skills, knowledge, attributes and values, through their programmes of study, that really help them work and live in a way that safeguards environmental, social and economic wellbeing – both in the present and for future generations. That is what ESD is about at UWE Bristol and we are committed to providing opportunities for all our students to engage.

At our last review, 90% of our UK domiciled students engaged with the subject of sustainable development within the context of their discipline. In every Department of the University there are modules or programmes exposing students to some, or the entire context of, sustainable development.

Bristol’s year as European Green Capital in 2015 will also provide further opportunities for our students to put sustainability into practice.

It is not easy but we are on the journey and we are committed to pushing forward, thanks to the leadership of Professor Jim Longhurst and the work of the team and colleagues across the University.

Through ESD and our other university activities, we are shaping future generations and the impact they will go on to have on environmental, social and economic wellbeing across the globe.

Value of a degree

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The value of a degree is once again in the spotlight, with a misleading focus on immediate outcomes (Half of recent UK graduates stuck in non-graduate jobs, says ONS, 19 November), and suggestions that degrees are superfluous to many jobs – in particular nursing (Vince Cable: university degrees ‘superfluous to many jobs’, 13 November).

I strongly disagree.

With regards to nursing, I have worked in health and academia for many years and I would highlight just how different healthcare delivery is now. We need practitioners who can problem solve, deal with the complex needs of patients, manage technologies and people, work quickly, safely and accurately under highly pressured scenarios and support effective team working. These are skills that are developed as part of higher education.

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Professor Paul Gough, was featured on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme yesterday challenging more broadly the very misleading assertions we have been hearing about the value of a degree today.

University is not just about preparing students for the immediate workplace. It is about ensuring that our students can engage and flourish in a rapidly changing world, where knowledge and understanding are at a premium, in what is an information rich environment.

Our economy in the UK is increasingly knowledge-based. As Libby Hackett, CEO of University Alliance recently commented, OECD data shows that we will need more, not fewer, highly skilled graduates to meet the future demands of our economy. Of new jobs created between now and 2025, 80% are predicted to be at graduate level.

There can be no doubt that change will continue at pace, based on technologies that are beyond our current imagination and creating jobs that we have not yet thought of. The adaptability and agility that our graduates develop through their university experience is highly sought after – and crucial to patterns of economic growth and social development in the UK. They need to be life-long learners, able to engage with and apply different types of knowledge as they need it throughout their lives.

At UWE Bristol, we focus on preparing our students for this environment through our real-world approach, and the many opportunities we offer for our students to apply ideas in the workplace and make contacts with employers. We focus not only on using cutting edge case studies to engage with complex theoretical concepts but also:

  • Using advanced simulations of real-life scenarios
  • Running one of the largest paid undergraduate internship schemes in the UK
  • Linking students into ‘live’ projects with communities and business
  • Professional one-to-one careers support
  • Innovative and high quality employer-engaged courses

Degrees are changing. Our new ‘Team Entrepreneurship’ is an excellent example of a new approach to studying and learning about business, where students set up and run their own team company that will earn money finding and completing real projects for real organisations.

And our approach pays off. At UWE Bristol we are very proud of the success of our students, being the 6th best university for employability and 2nd best for the value-added we bring to our students.

We need to bring these opportunities to more not fewer students. The premium for graduate skills will only continue to rise in the future, given the shape of our future workforce. We need to support more people to be the agile lifelong learners that our economy and society need for the future.