Are universities failing ethnic minority students?

A widening disparity between the academic achievements of white and ethnic minority students has been highlighted in a new report by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU).

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The ECU, a charity tasked with promoting equality in the higher education sector, analysed data gathered by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the academic years 2003/04 up to the most recent data, from 2007/08. The report deals with information relating to nearly 2m students, with them put into three ethnic groups: white, black, or Asian. It shows improvements in attaining either 2:1s or firsts, yet the gap between the white students and students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (BME) has grown wider.

The report shows that the gap in students getting a first or 2:1 has gone from 27.6% in 2003/04 to 28.7% in 2007/08 between white and black students, and from 16.2% to 17.6% between white and Asian students. The difference between white and BME students is even more startling when those achieving firsts only is examined. 14.7% of white students, 8.2% of Asian students and only 4.2% of black students achieved the top grade possible in 2007/08.

Sue Cavanagh, deputy chief executive of ECU, explains what value this report has in highlighting the continuing problem that universities face: “While statistics alone do not fully explain the complexities of the issues of disadvantage, they can be used as a starting point for institutions to identify where they can most effectively focus their efforts and measure the impact that their policies are having in promoting equality and diversity.”

A representative from the University of Lincoln made reassurances that the issue of equality, diversity and looking to close the attainment gap at the university were top of the agenda. They pointed out that the new vice-chancellor, Professor Mary Stuart, who took up the role at the beginning of November following the retirement of Professor David Chiddick, has already indicated her intentions to tackle this issue, saying: “Professor Mary Stuart takes equality of opportunity extremely seriously. She has instructed the registry to carry out a detailed review of admission, progression, and achievement and to report in the Spring. It may also be worthy of noting that a University of Lincoln degree attainment study of BME students is a specific action for the university’s new Single Equality Scheme 2009-2012.”

The university also points out that while degree results for the varying ethnic groups broadly matched the findings of the ECU, the university has already made moves to reduce the disparity between white and BME students. This is demonstrated by the fact that the percentage of the undergraduate population from BME backgrounds has increased from 5.9% in 2006/7 to 7.0% in 2009/10.

But despite the university making promises to counter these issues, Levi Pay, interim policy director of the ECU, told the Guardian that there are numerous issues leading to the widening gap in attainment, including the services that the Students’ Union offer. He says: “Institutions need to reflect, for example, on whether their curricula, assessment methods, support services, and even the extra-curricular activities they support are genuinely inclusive and fair.”

Steven Greaves, University of Lincoln Students’ Union’s vice-president for welfare, defended the SU’s inclusiveness and support of BME students, saying: “I feel that there is always more that any institution or organisation can do to integrate students, and that we as a Students’ Union will always continue to work to give all students the best student experience.”

Greaves went on to say that the SU has numerous societies and initiatives that look to involve and include ethnic minorities. He explained that the SU held special welcome evenings and buffets for international students and the SU supports a thriving African Caribbean Society and international students committee, who work closely with the SU to deal with problems arising from cultural differences.

Greaves admitted that there are problems with integration of students from ethnic minorities, but says he’s taking measures to overcome these problems: “I know of some problems relating to language and assignment skills. I am currently progressing these with the International Students Committee and the university so that we should hopefully see some better study skills and more variety in the language courses offered.”

Despite the efforts of both the SU and the university, based on the study’s findings there still appears much progress and development is needed in the services provided, before meaningful and substantial narrowing of the attainment gap is achieved.

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