With BAME Students at a Serious Disadvantage, it is Time for University Leaders to Act


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Author: Cameron Boyle and Pia Subramaniam

When taking a closer look at the likes of Oxford and Cambridge, neither institution has a student body that reflects ethnic diversity and multicultural acceptance. In fact, our elite universities stand in stark contrast to such ideas. From the frequent incidents of racism to the prevalence of a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) attainment gap, it is vital that educational leadership takes a stand in order to achieve equal opportunities for all.

The numbers of BAME students that gain a place at such institutions are a reflection of the sheer injustice. In 2016, only 35 black students were accepted into Oxford, in comparison with 2180 white students. Cambridge presented similar numbers, with only 40 black students fortunate enough to obtain a place.

When questioning how such unjust circumstances come about  one only has to look to the regular first-hand accounts of racism experienced by BAME students at elite universities. A student at Oxford shared some of her experiences with Business Insider, stating that a fellow student asked if they could call her “the n-word”, during her first week of study. In addition, Cambridge student Timi Sotire told the same publication that she was asked whether her afro could be ‘petted’. Such incidents demonstrate the kind of behaviour that goes unchecked at the nation’s top universities. It will continue until senior leaders take a stand by talking about race, and creating appropriate spaces for staff and students to participate in the dialogue At present, such subjects are often avoided due to a fear of saying the wrong thing. However, if leaders ensure that the appropriate tone is set, the racism encountered by BAME students can discussed and subsequently counteracted.

Performance and attainment

A joint-study by UUK and NUS found that there is an attainment gap between BAME and White British students of 10-15% at 29% of UK universities. This needs to change. The attainment gap evidences the sheer damage caused by the hostility faced by BAME students. Feeling as though you don’t belong damages morale, which in turn hinders one’s ability to succeed academically. The same study contains recommendations on how to achieve positive change in this regard. It advocates that universities use Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in order to measure progress, and that accountability for the attainment gap sits with vice chancellors and their senior teams.

Some progress has been made: 48 universities have signed up to the Race Equality Charter, of which 10 have received the bronze award. The positive change that can be enacted by leadership is encapsulated by Kingston University London. The reduction of the BAME attainment gap was adopted as an institutional KPI, which revolved around the increase of the BAME value-added (VA) score. The VA score is based on a student’s entry qualifications and subject of study, which are used to create a probability for final degree score. The percentage of students that will achieve a first or 2.1 is based on this probability. In Kingston’s case, a cohort of BAME students comfortably exceeded the expected percentage. This demonstrates the effectiveness of KPIs in achieving real change. 

The attainment gap issue can also be found in earlier stages in the academic development; According to UCAS figures, only 2% of black A-Level students got 3 A-Levels in total, nowhere near the minimum 3 As required for a place at Oxbridge. Following on from this, Afro-Caribbean students are almost three times as likely as white British students to be excluded. All these facts should prompt a serious re-think on the part of our elite universities, in order to grant students of all backgrounds an equal chance to succeed. The availability of data is hugely important here. University leaders must ensure that data is robust enough to identify areas where progress can be made, and that sufficient qualitative analysis is undertaken to fully grasp the problem. If this is achieved, the data can be used to help heads of schools and colleges drive change locally. Across all UK universities, there are only 10% BAME professors present, and only 0.6% of this figure is black. Increasing the amount of BAME role models will have a hugely positive effect on students’ self-belief.

Elite universities need to fundamentally change their approach towards BAME students and understand that the only way to achieve a tolerant and inclusive institution is by ensuring all are treated equally. It is down to leadership to enact this change. If targets are set and progress is regularly monitored, the situation will begin to change for the better.

Cameron Boyle and Pia Subramaniam are content writers for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that offer support to international students looking to study in the UK. 

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