Addressing Barriers to Student Success Conference

On 13 February I attended a one-day conference held to disseminate and share learning from the Office for Students (OfS) funded Student Attainment Project 2 (SAP2) at the University of Derby. This project recently concluded, with Derby as lead institution for this work and Solent University and University of West London (UWL), where I am Director of Library Services, as partners.

At University of West London, the purpose of SAP2 is to narrow and eliminate unexplained degree-awarding gaps between different groups of students with an initial focus on:

  • The gap between White and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students awarded a 1st or 2.1 degree classification
  • The gap between students from the most deprived areas compared with least deprived areas awarded a 1st or 2.1 degree classification (‘deprivation’ is measured using the Index of Multiple Deprivation or IMD, for England)

The project at UWL concentrated on implementing interventions that had been found to work effectively at Derby, and “scale up” Derby’s success. If you want to know more about this Eirini Tatsi, Academic Lead for the project at UWL and Esther Darby, Head of Academic Planning at UWL have written about this in our in-house journal in an article on ‘Addressing the gap‘ (2019).

These gaps are more commonly called attainment gaps, but following Dr Gurnam Singh’s critique of this term as a ‘critical friend’ of the SAP2 project, I use degree-awarding gaps and strongly recommend this video ‘From attainment gap to awarding gap‘ explaining why:

The focus for the conference was the unexplained degree-awarding gap between White and BAME students as a whole, and especially between White and Black students where this gap is most pronounced. This degree-awarding gap is both long-standing and complex, and represents a deep inequity within higher education. In this context, the conference provided a series of reflection-on-action pieces from colleagues involved with this work, from students across the partner universities, and stakeholders which for me spoke to both the urgency of the necessity for positive change.

The format of the conference included traditional presentations, small group ‘Talking Circle’ discussions mixing staff and student participants, and several performance pieces by students. The main performance was a powerful spoken word piece by students from London College of Music at UWL, who performed words taken from interviews with BAME students across the three partner universities about their experiences of exclusion and racism within higher education. This was recorded, and will hopefully be made available widely.

For me a question raised during the introduction to the conference, by Professor Malcolm Todd, Provost (Academic) from University of Derby, was to ask why we find the presentation of the things we already know—those plain facts of degree-awarding gaps—as ‘challenging’.

This theme continued for me during the presentation by Kirsty Johnson, Access and Participation Manager at OfS, who spoke twice during the conference. The view Kirsty gave from our regulator is that we need to understand better what is effective in raising attainment—in understanding what works and what does not in different contexts. Rather than simply widening access to higher education, OfS have a keen interest in addressing unequal outcomes for different groups of students throughout their course of study—this includes for example inequality in admissions, and differentials in progression and retention, and in academic attainment.

It is significant for English higher education that OfS is a regulator rather than the funding council Hefce, which it replaced. What came through for me in Kirsty’s talks was the way in which OfS staff are still getting to grips with their new role as a regulator with significant power to effect change using what are termed “policy levers” or “regulatory levers”. A realistic view for me is to expect the new regulatory approach to inequity in attainment and outcomes to be heavily driven by metrics and data. We expect OfS to create and publish datasets that provide both a national picture of degree-awarding gaps across English higher education, but that also have regard to how individual universities are performing. As education workers, I feel we need to think about how a metricised approach will affect our interactions with students who will know all about inequality within our universities and what we are doing, or failing to do, to address it.

From the National Union of Students, Amatey Doku, Vice President (Higher Education), gave an account of barriers to student success that asked us to first think about our context. Amatey asked us to consider the academy’s role in and responsibility for knowledge creation, in that it was the academy that created and legitimised knowledge such as ‘scientific racism’ which birthed and now continues to reproduce structural racism. Inequity in higher education cannot be thought of as a simple fault to be resolved, as we might think we can fix a burst pipe. Instead what is needed is a ground up re-evaluation of everything the university does. This is both difficult to achieve and also exciting as there is such far-reaching potential for positive change.

Amatey made a point I have heard many times from Black academic and student leaders and which I feel bears repeating: BAME students and staff cannot solve inequity in education alone. It is unfair to assume or ask this, as it represents a ‘double disadvantage’ for staff and students who experience structural inequity within education to shoulder this workload and responsibility alone. Amatey also spoke on the Black degree-awarding gap at the AdvanceHE EDI conference in 2018, I very strongly recommend watching this:

Eirini Tatsi of UWL spoke as part of the panel discussion for academic leads from the three partner universities, and as the SAP2 project is concluding, she concentrated on looking forward to how we can embed cultural change within academic and professional services practice. Eirini’s point is addressing degree-awarding gaps is not solely about assessment or what happens in the classroom, but demands a cross-institution approach—this may be familiar in mirroring contemporary approaches to widening participation activity in general as ‘whole institution’. Eirini noted some work we have started in Library Services to consider how students’ diverse identities can be represented within course materials or reading lists, as just one aspect developing an inclusive curriculum and also spoke about the need to reflect diversity and inclusion work in our priorities at a more strategic level.

Dr Gurnam Singh of Coventry University offered a critical perspective as a social work academic on the need to understand the complexity of learning experiences. Coventry has not been involved with SAP2 as a partner institution, but as I noted Gurnam has been an influence throughout its duration. Personally, I have found him to be a particularly inspiring speaker and a compelling theorist of critical pedagogy—he has a skill in blending citations to lived experience alongside theory and ideas which is, to me, incredibly convincing.

As with Amatey Doku’s talk, Gurnam reiterated the longer-term work is about transforming the university, not just fixing a broken element that is holding certain groups back—in fact as might be suggested in the title of the conference. Degree-awarding gaps are a scandal, and a telling sign that our processes and practices are not fit for purpose. Another way of framing this is degree-awarding gaps are symptomatic of universities breaking ground in widening participation, so we need to maintain focus on developing this work and trust that it will be judged positively.

Other speakers on the day had discussed intersectionality, but Gurnam showed what good citational practice looks like in action by tracing intersectionality to its genesis in Black feminist scholarship, including citing Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) who introduced and developed this theory. In raising this Gurnam criticised and made problematic many of the oversimplified criticisms of intersectionality, including those that claim socioeconomic status, or social class, as the most powerful axis of oppression, and those that centre feelings of White guilt and helplessness to effect change.

Gurnam’s analytical take is degree-awarding gaps reflect a problem with a complex system, and changing one aspect of learning can lead to unintended negative consequences. Over time, our analyses of degree-awarding gaps have become more nuanced and have left behind discourses that model deficit in students, however they have not yet really addressed complexity in students’ learning experience. The danger is that as learning relationships are dynamic and can be non-linear, in making a particular ‘intervention’ we may accidentally reinforce the problems we seek to disrupt and overcome.

A key challenge for me was Gurnam’s critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural and social capital (1986), which is a widely cited analytical frame used by staff at my workplace and of course broadly within higher education. I lean heavily on Bourdieu myself. Without care this approach can simply be utilised as another way of individualising deficit within students by conceptualising them as ‘lacking’ in cultural and social capital. A more critical perspective is to consider how the university can recognise the cultural and social capitals widening participation students bring to education, rather than prizing those capitals most associated with an imagined ‘ideal’ student.

Ultimately Gurnam thinks this is possible, but we need better ways to escape the traps of our biases and the epistemological frameworks that create and sustain our biases. Doing the seemingly logical or simple things to address degree-awarding gaps may simply not work or have unintended consequences, so future solutions demand new paradigms and understanding based on research that more fully involves students in partnership roles.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The forms of capital’, in Richardson, J. (ed.) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, pp. 241-258. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Crenshaw, K.W. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989 (1). Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

Tatsi, E. and Darby, E. (2019) ‘Addressing the gap’, New Vistas, 4(2) [Online]. Available at: https://www.uwl.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Departments/Research/Vistas/Web/PDF/uwl_new_vistas_0402_tatsi_darby_0.pdf

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