On Wednesday 29 November I will be hosting an LTHE-HEA Twitter chat about degree attainment gaps. What are the obstacles and challenges that teaching staff face in addressing these gaps, and what things would help staff to make progress in closing statistically significant attainment gaps between different student groups? The Twitter chat will consider three broad areas where universities make efforts to address student attainment: data, practice, and leadership.
The Higher Education Academy has had a long-standing commitment to closing attainment gaps, through workshops, ‘change programmes’, and research. In the paragraphs that follow I want to make specific mention of BME degree attainment gaps, but please join the chat if you are interested in discussing other attainment gaps or attainment gaps in general.
You may find it useful to read the case study by Kingston, Hertfordshire and Wolverhampton Universities on What works in approaches to the BME attainment gap. This was funded by the HEA in an effort to examine how a value-added metric developed by Kingston University might be adopted or adapted by other Universities.
The gap between BME and white students is only one of many degree attainment gaps; there are others including gaps between full and part-time student groups, mature and young students, male and female, and distance and campus students. Attainment gaps also cross-cut each other. ECU’s Equality in higher education: statistical report 2017 provides a valuable annual update and their downloadable infographics are a useful resource for university or departmental discussions.
ECU’s 2017 report has the attainment gap between white and black students qualifying with a First/2:1 degree at 25.3%. There is, of course, wide variation between different student groups, different universities and across departments. HEA’s report by Professor Ruth Woodfield’s research on Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines is especially useful for its argument that, all other things being equal, disciplinary culture exerts an independent effect on retention and attainment.
Access to timely and well presented data and analysis of attainment gaps between BME and white students is, I believe, especially important. It is important because it is the biggest gap. But it is also important because, in my experience, when it comes to attainment gaps between white and BME students, the data is more likely to be queried, more likely to be questioned, challenged, or even denied. I choose these adjectives carefully, because it’s important to say that of course data should be interrogated, but if we query data for the sake of it, without focusing on what is missing, on what is poorly presented, on how it can be disseminated or enhanced, and if we are doing that in response to data relating to one group of students and not another, then that is a problem.
So, on Wednesday, I will be focusing not on the data itself, but on the use of attainment gap data. I’m keen to know what happens at your university to make degree attainment data available to staff: Is it shared in a timely fashion? Is it accessible? Do you have all the available data there is relating to attainment gaps on your course or discipline? Possibly of most importance: Are there departmental meetings where you are enabled to discuss the attainment gaps at your university and to formulate strategies and practices to address these gaps? I will ask:
Q.1 what’s the most useful practice at your university relating to the use of attainment gap data?
And then, thinking of the challenges relating to the use of attainment gap data –
Q. 2 what’s the chief obstacle to making your data a force for change in closing the attainment gap?
There are many teaching interventions that can help to close attainment gaps: high expectations, timetabled personal tutoring sessions, active learning, are just a few. The HEA is one of many organisations who have published research in this area. I recommend Webb, Wyness and Cotton’s Enhancing access, retention, attainment and progression in higher education: A review of the literature showing demonstrable impact. Published in 2017 it has a sizeable section on attainment and closing attainment gaps and complements the HEA’s Retention Framework.
What is often lacking, however, is not ideas on interventions that can help close attainment gaps, but the nurturing of the environment where those ideas can be adapted, implemented, evaluated, and sustained.
Staff sometimes know what they would like to do, but they are often hard-pressed for the support and time to read and reflect on such interventions, to review their programme design, or to introduce changes that they know may make a difference to retention and attainment. Take active learning for example: it takes time and effort to change how we design our lectures or seminars. Of course, there are individual teachers who somehow make the time for this to happen, but system-wide approaches to begin teaching for retention, or teaching to close attainment gaps probably require departmental or programme leadership, a clear steer from the top on what is expected, why it is important, and how it will happen.
Even where we do get things right, it is about keeping it right. A university I visited reported progress on attainment gaps only to find their initiatives ‘went off the boil’, as one senior leader described it to me, when the focus the following year turned to yet another intervention.
So, on Wednesday, I will ask a question not so much focused on individual practices in closing attainment gaps, but
Q.3 What in your opinion has been (or would be) the chief factor in enabling your department to adopt a systemic approach to closing attainment gaps?
Professor Patricia Broadfoot, chair of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation What works? Committee, once commented: there’s no point in rolling out, for example, schemes about personal tutoring, peer-learning or peer-support unless someone at the very top of the university is communicating the message that: in this institution we care about each other, we care about interpersonal relations!
Leadership is essential to setting expectations, driving change, and ensuring that good practice is more than scattered pockets of local initiatives. One source of leadership that is important to develop, nurture, and protect is leadership that comes from our students. This is especially important for BME student leadership because the low numbers of black staff appointed to senior roles in universities often means it is black students themselves who step forward and speak up, often alone and unsupported.
One issue I want to address in our Twitter chat is how we as staff support student voice and student leadership within the classroom and within the university. The importance of doing so is frequently illustrated, most recently by the media response a few weeks ago to the (recurring) debate on decolonising the curriculum - this time instigated by students at Cambridge, especially the Cambridge Union women’s officer Lola Olufemi. The media’s representation of Ms Olufemi’s arguments about the curriculum was challenged by her colleagues, and also by university staff, but the incident is a reminder of the deep seated obstacles to both developing or ‘liberating’ the curriculum and to creating inclusive learning environments.
Outside of the mainstream media, the violence in the racist and sexist responses to some of Olufemi’s tweets on the issue was shocking. It leaves one wondering how black student leaders speak up at all. Perhaps this is the point of such attacks. Yet these are our students trying to make their universities, our universities, a better place. Perhaps it is time that we stopped allowing the agenda around ‘safe spaces’ to be set for us, and to consider more what we are doing to address dangerous spaces, aggressive spaces, racist spaces. Prof Khalwant Bhopal commented recently that as long as she was in a position of power she would call out racism. Like Prof Bhopal, all of us as teachers are in a position of power every day, and knowing what to do, and how to do it, at the right time can make an enormous difference to our students and our learning environments.
My last question is then about leadership and our own personal efforts at leading change.
Q.4 What is the one thing you will do tomorrow/next week or next month to begin to make better progress in closing attainment gaps?
It can be a small thing, it might be focused on a change in your own classroom or directed at your department or university. Whatever it is, we would really like to hear it.
If you want to find out more, get in touch with me on Twitter!
We will be discussing attainment gaps at our next Twitter Chat at 20:00 (GMT), 29 November 2017. Follow the conversation: #HEAchat #LTHEchat