This is not a topic that has had much airing within the University and so it may not be well known to many. However, we have just completed a substantial project exploring the issue at Reading and are set to do more work in the near future in preparation for submitting an institution-wide application for the Race Equality Charter Mark ( I wanted to use this blog to share the key findings of the project with you.


The national picture

There is a long-standing national disparity in attainment at Higher Education. The proportion of white UK-domiciled students who graduate with first class or upper second class degrees is significantly higher than the proportion of black and minority ethnic (BME) students achieving the same classifications. The sector-wide attainment gap increased from 17.2% in 2003/04 to a peak of 18.8% in 2005/06 and now stands at 17.7% (ECU 2013). Although attainment levels for all students in the UK are rising, the gap between white and BME students is not closing, it hovers stubbornly around 18%.

What do BME students say about their experience of Higher Education?

Three key points emerge from NUS research (Race for Equality 2011)

  • Ethnic minority students report that they do not feel well prepared for University.
  • The narrative of not “fitting in” is strong amongst the UK’s BME students. This is attributed to a range of factors including: the low numbers of BME staff; the perception that they are expected to leave their identity at the classroom door, or that their lecturers are blind to their colour; the view that the curriculum does not reflect their diverse interests; the misaligned mutual expectations between staff and students particularly prevalent for students from under-represented groups in HE.
  • Issues to do with assessment and feedback are particularly keenly felt by BME students – primarily around transparency of expectations and perceived fairness in marking.


Findings from other research projects

Significant research has been undertaken to determine whether the disparity can be attributed to other factors, such as previous academic attainment. However, the results show that ethnicity is a significant factor in degree attainment even when a range of other social factors are controlled for (Broecke & Nicholls 2007). Meaning that there is something about the higher education experience that isn’t working as well for BME students as it is for white students.

However, it has proven difficult to identify specific causal factors, beyond the issues that BME students themselves raise (e.g. those cited above). In fact much research has concluded that the casual factors are diverse and complex reflecting the heterogeneous nature of BME students and the wide variety of potential influences on attainment.

There is further agreement that many staff lack confidence in supporting ethnically and culturally diverse students. Furthermore, it has been observed that the predominant model of student support, i.e. open door to be sought out by students, does not function well for the greater diversity of students in HE today. On the positive side though the most effective interventions are agreed to be mainstream initiatives that are accessible by all students and not ring fenced by ethnicity or any other demographic criteria. 


Key findings from within the University of Reading

  • In 2012/13 78% of white University of Reading graduates achieved a 1st or 2.1 in comparison to only 56% of our BME graduates.    
  • A key observation is that race is not something that has been discussed at Reading.
  • During the project few Schools reported an existing awareness of attainment disparity between BME and White students on their programmes.
  • Schools do recognise issues around supporting international students but few reported awareness of issues concerning BME students. This reflects a broader institutional tendency to focus on international students as a proxy for ethnic diversity
  • Many UoR staff felt that there was discomfort around discussing issues of race that often lead us to be silent on the matter, for fear of offending.
  • There is little diversity training (and little take up of what does exist) specifically relating to teaching and learning either for established or for new staff, yet there is anecdotal evidence that many staff feel ill equipped to support ethnically, racially and culturally diverse students.
  • Our internal monitoring processes do not assist us in identifying differential attainment by demographic group, which explains why many schools are unaware of the issue. 
  • Much of the visible and explicit activity that exists to actively foster a multi-cultural environment in the University is provided by RUSU (e.g. student societies, One World Week).
  • The University has two strategic agendas leading to the increasingly diversification of the student population within the University: “Internationalisation” is one and “Widening Participation” the other. There is no clear interface between the two agendas and, by and large, they operate independently of one other.


Patterns of attainment amongst Reading’s BME students

There are many challenges to undertaking robust quantitative statistical analysis of attainment in relation to ethnicity. The most significant are the comparatively small numbers of students that would recognise themselves as coming from the same ethnic group, but the issue of insectionality(1) is also important. Nevertheless Dr Karen Ayers applied her considerable statistical skills to the problem and devised an approach of ‘stacking’ UG leavers across the three years (increasing the population sizes). The resultant analysis showed:

  • that a similar attainment gap for UK BME students as exists for non-UK BME students.
  • The existence of attainment gaps for each of the Asian, black, Chinese, mixed and ‘other’ ethnic groupings
  • The existence of an attainment gap for all but two subjects in the University. 
  • That there is no obvious pattern in relation to the proportion of BME students or whether the subject is a more science/quantitative in nature
  • As has been demonstrated with national datasets, analysis of the UoR leavers dataset reveals that although there are a number of factors that are correlated with attainment, ethnicity was shown to be a significant and consistent factor for most schools when other factors (such as gender, disability, socio-economic status, age and previous educational attainment) were controlled for.
  • A detailed and innovative statistical case study undertaken with data from one school (using ‘Part’ and modular level results over a three year period) revealed an interested pattern of variable disparity in attainment for different modules. Furthermore it revealed that, for this School, Part 1 BME students displayed similar levels of attainment but a gap opened up and expanded in subsequent parts. (NB. This may not be the pattern across all schools)

An over-arching conclusion is that the observations and patterns revealed by this project have strong resonances with research carried out at a national level and at a number of other institutions (not necessarily similar HEIs). This does not let us off the hook, rather it emphasises the obligation for all universities to reflect on current practice both inside and outside of the classroom in order to better support, challenge and equip our BME students.  

The project report has been considered by the University Board for Teaching and Learning, the Widening Participation Group and the the University Equality and Diversity Committee. They will consider a range of proposed recommendations that aim to achieve five key objectives:

  • raise awareness of the attainment gap, both generally at an institutional level but also to ensure its visibility in regular monitoring and review processes at School and service level.
  • effect change in a number of targeted subjects likely to have impact on the largest numbers BME students
  • develop staff confidence and skills in supporting an ethnically and culturally diverse student community
  • strengthen ethnic minority student voice/representation
  • inform the work of the UoR Race Equality Charter Mark team

A group has been established to oversee the implementation of recommendations from the BME attainment project, however each and every one of us has a role to play in addressing this issue. If you have a teaching and learning role you can make a start by taking the following three steps that will have immediate benefit for BME students, but actually all of your students will benefit. 

1) Get to know your students – if you have a small group this might mean talking to them about what they are finding rewarding and what they are finding challenging. With larger groups you might need to depend on data about the cohort. Get to know the recurring trends in your student population and spend an hour researching the challenges encountered by the various student groups.

2) Identify aspects of the curriculum where you can incorporate opportunities for all students to bring their diverse cultural perspective to bear. Minority groups should not feel they have to leave their identities at the classroom door. 

3) Considering that BME students nationally report feeling ill prepared for HE, consider how you can ensure that each and every student has a good understanding of your expectations of them – how can you be really explicit? BME students are more likely to come from families with little HE experience, they are also more likely to enter the university with qualifications other than the traditional A-level.   

Inclusivity whether regarding race, gender, religion, disability, age, nationality, socio-economic background etc, is set to be a growing issue in Higher Education. As our student population becomes more diverse we must shift our institutional culture from regarding some students are having needs beyond the ‘norm’ to recognising that the student population is diverse and that our ‘normal’ teaching, student support and generally our ways of working need to cater for a wide range of needs. This is easy to say but a huge aspiration to deliver!


 ECU (2013) Equality in Higher Education Statistical Report 2013

NUS (2011) Race for equality: A report on the experiences of Black students in further and higher education. London: National Union of Students. Available from: 

Broecke, S. and Nicholls, T. (2007) Ethnicity and Degree Attainment, DfeS Research Report (RW92), DfES


  1. Intersectionality – the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.