White students, on average, are more likely to graduate from university with a first- or upper second-class degree compared with students who are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). This difference is often referred to as the “BAME attainment gap” and means that a student’s race and/or ethnicity can hold back their success in education and work.
Many graduate-level jobs and further study require applicants to have achieved a 2:1 degree or above. The attainment gap means that ethnic minority graduates are less likely to have access to these opportunities, which isn’t fair. But vast and often systematic structural inequalities are deeply rooted in society, so it’s no surprise they’re to be found in universities, too.
The attainment gap is a serious problem that needs tackling collectively and nationally. As a prospective student, it’s important to acknowledge its existence, and to feel empowered to address it directly. Attainment gaps harm diversity, which is a problem for everyone, so it shouldn’t be left to the BAME community to fix them. Whatever your ethnicity, as a student, you have the right to ask your university to address these gaps, become more inclusive, and operate a level playing field.
In recent years, awareness of issues surrounding BAME attainment and diversity in universities has increased. The National Union of Students has led this campaign, creating a nationwide conversation on the gap and how to address it. Students have been at the forefront of campaigning, protesting and lobbying for action to close these gaps nationally, through the occupation of buildings, campaigns for a decolonised curriculum, creation of safe spaces and targeted widening participation programmes for students.
And universities are listening. They want to make sure that all their students achieve their potential and have opportunities to excel, and many are combating this problem through collaborative work between senior university leaders, academics and students’ unions.
They are being challenged by the Office for Students, too. It has set national targets for unis to eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes between white and black students by 2024-25. Unis can also pledge to become a member of Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter.
This year, I conducted research into the experiences of BAME students and the impact on their attainment. As a student, there are lots of opportunities. For example, studying abroad and work experience will diversify your CV and help you develop key transferable skills. Joining societies leads to an increased sense of belonging, while sports and exercise are linked to positive wellbeing and improved academic achievement. Lastly, participating in conversations with peers and staff around race and culture creates reverse mentoring. Use these chances to make your voice heard!
Higher education is a transformative experience and it is important we continue to work together to make it accessible and to encourage equal opportunities for all.
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