Author: Karl C. Alvestad, Project Officer – University of Winchester
My first encounter with the attainment and awarding gaps in higher education came in 2015-16, when I undertook a small research project into the inclusivity of the curriculum at University of Winchester. During this project, I was confronted by both my own advantaged situation as white and male, but also the struggle Higher Education can be if you belong to a minority or if you are considered from a non-traditional background. Part of this confrontation and research experience was a shock to find that students of different backgrounds do not have an equal chance of succeeding in Higher education. I have to admit that I am from a very sheltered background, and that these thoughts or ideas had never crossed my path until then. As a white male, I am fortunate, and I must not forget this privilege and think that everyone else is in the same situation. Yet as an immigrant, a first generation student, and a gay man, I have some understanding of being an outsider and its potential impact on a student experience.
Over the course of the first project, I slowly became aware of the attainment and awarding gaps, and its consequences, this awareness led me to want to take part in the Changing Mindsets Project. But when I started my journey as part of the project team for the Changing Mindsets Project, I frequently came across a number of questions that has influenced my work and the project’s implementation at Winchester. Key among these questions was questions and statements ‘what is the attainment gap?’, ‘what does that represent’, and ‘why does this matter? – Winchester is so white that we don’t have to worry about the BME/BAME gap here’ and sadly a variation of this was ‘… we have no BME students so it doesn’t matter for us’.[i] These questions, as you might understand, made me worry but I have lately come to a realisation that they also shed some light on why this project matters, and might also illustrate part of the problem we are facing when trying to tackle the attainment gaps.
The idea of Winchester as a predominant white populated university is reflective of the demographics of many courses at University of Winchester, yet the University recruits a stable and growing number of BME student. In 2014-15 the University had a BME population of 531 students, estimated to be 7% of a total of 7,487 students enrolled that year (University of Winchester, 2015) However, comparatively HEFCE notes that 29% of all HE entrants in 2015-16 were BME students (HEFCE, 2017) This suggests that Winchester has a smaller BME population than the average of the industry, but that still does not mean that we as an institution does not have to worry about the BME attainment and awarding gap. Instead it means that we like all other institutions have a responsibility to make sure all our students have equal opportunity to succeed.
The BME attainment gap element of the Changing Mindsets project became a focus for the questions and critique in early stages of the project, meaning that one of our other goals, closing the gap and improving the HE experience for students from low participation background, was lost in the debates and our attempts to promote the project and whilst securing buy-in for the project. Institutional our recruitment statistics suggests that we recruit a significant number of students from a Low Participation background. Statistics show that in 2014-15 11.6 % (868) of our students were from low participation backgrounds (University of Winchester, 2015). Although neither BME nor Low Participation background students are dominant features of our student body, we should do our best to ensure that their University experience is not be influenced by a statistic suggesting they are less likely to achieve than other students. Unfortunately this hope is not the reality, for like the rest of the HE industry Winchester shares the statistics of the attainment and awarding gaps as described by Arif a few weeks ago (Mahmud, 2017). Arif highlighted that the UK attainment gap for BME students is 15% in 2015-16 and attainment gap for students from the least advantaged backgrounds (based on the POLAR 3 classification, quintile 1) is 14% in comparison with those from the most advantaged quintile. These statistics do not tell the whole story, but they do show that there is a national problem that needs to be addressed, yet they don’t explain why I faced such questions at the beginning of the project.
So let me now return to what these questions tell us about Winchester and our work with the attainment gaps. The first thing these questions and comments tell us is that the lack of a sizable BME population in certain degrees, mean that interested parties might not feel that the gap is part of their life and thus not part of their responsibility. At the same time, many students from low participation backgrounds might pass under the radar. This invisibility may have contributed to my own ignorance of the attainment gaps that might have been present in the classes I taught in the past. As such the lack of data or awareness of the demography of our students may contribute to HE practitioners blindness to the attainment gap and may shed light on some of the questions I faces then I first started my role. Secondly, these questions also show us that without previous familiarity with, understanding of, the attainment and awarding gaps, interested parties in HE might not be conscious of what the situation is. As such, our ‘blindness’ perpetuates the problem. After an informal quick search on the Intranet for Winchester, the phrase attainment gap frequently emerged in the context of Widening Participation activities or Equality meetings, but rarely in the context of specific subjects. If this informal search if representative of the knowledge reality, then it suggests increased visibility among HE practitioners might help increase awareness of the problem and contribute to success in the work with closing the gap.
Consequently, I am left wondering: what would happen if I was aware of the gaps earlier in my career? And could a greater awareness of the gaps amongst my colleagues in HE contribute to the success of this project?
I don’t know. I think I might need more tea and time to think about these things.
[i] These questions and statements are not representative of the majority of the conversations I have had as part of this project, but they are distilled versions of some questions and comments encountered along the way.
HEFCE (2015) Differences in degree outcomes: The effect of subject and student characteristics (accessed 24/11/17) http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2015/201521/
HEFCE (2017) Student Characteristics – Ethnicity, Last updated 5/7/2017, http://www.hefce.ac.uk/analysis/HEinEngland/students/
Mahmud, A. (2017), The Gaps by Numbers (accessed 24/11/17) http://mindsets.port.ac.uk/?p=1259
University of Winchester (2015) Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning Strategy 2015-2020 (Winchester 2015),
University of Winchester (2017) The University in Numbers (accessed 24/11/17) http://www.winchester.ac.uk/about-us/our-future/the-university-in-numbers/.
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.