Closing Awarding Gaps: Belonging and how to support a diverse student population

 In this article I mainly use the term BAME recognising that this term is being phased out of use and has problematic connotations (for example see DaCosta, Dixon-Smith and Singh’s 2021 Stimulus Paper on Beyond BAME: Rethinking the politics, construction, application and efficacy of ethnic categorisation). Currently however, there is no agreed upon and widely recognised alternative term and therefore for all its limitations it is used to aid a shared understanding of the issues affecting students from different ethnic groups.

Over a decade ago, Broecke and Nicholls’ (2007) detailed analysis of degree outcomes highlighted the disparities in the degree classifications awarded to students of different ethnic backgrounds. Following this, Singh’s (2009) report for the Higher Education Academy highlighted the multifaceted and complex challenges facing universities in addressing these disparities. He argued that a focus on the whole student experience, rather than a narrow focus just on attainment, was needed. Subsequently, the Disparities in Students Attainment Project highlighted the importance of high-quality learning relationships with students and the role of the affective domain in addressing academic achievement (Cousin and Cureton, 2012). The What Works? Student, Retention and Success Programme alerted the sector to the role of student belonging as a key component of student outcomes (Thomas, 2012).

In the last decade, universities have been trying to close awarding gaps (with varied success) and have been investigating the role of belonging to support this aim. If belonging is part of the solution to closing awarding gaps, then we need to be careful to not create a case of what critical race theorists describe as ‘interest convergence’ (Bell, 1980). In other words, a blanket approach to addressing belonging may improve the outcomes of white students more so than Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students, therefore retaining or even increasing awarding gaps. What we need to focus on is the belonging needs of BAME students, systemic issues of racism in academia and the circumstances of different ethnic groups. This is an under-researched area of belonging.

Much of the literature on student continuation and outcomes at university was heavily influenced by the work of Tinto (1993). This had a strong bias towards white, residential students and the support they needed to integrate into largely white dominated universities and ignored the extra challenges faced by other ethnic groups (Tierney, 1999). One legacy of omitting a more ethnically diverse perspective can be a continued focus on the informal, social aspects of university such as peer socialising and extracurricular activity as a means of creating student belonging. Whilst this seems to be effective for white students, minoritised groups tend to gain a sense of belonging more from within the formal, academic aspects rather than the informal, social side of university (Meeuwisse, Severiens and Born, 2010). Therefore, in what ways can we consider and address the belonging needs of students from BAME backgrounds? I have divided these into the following areas.

  • Institutional factors     
  • Individual factors and the wider student context     
  • Staff interactions
  • Peer interactions (Currant, 2020)

Supportive campus environments and cultures have been shown to improve student success (Kuh et al, 2005) and create belonging for ethnically diverse students (Harper and Quaye, 2009) but historically UK universities have white, Eurocentric cultures and curricula. Campaigns such as ‘Rhodes must Fall’, ‘Why is my professor white?’ and ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ highlighted the extent of the challenge facing universities. Attempts to decolonise the curriculum and Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter Mark are positive steps in addressing institutional environments that can still be hostile to BAME students.

Attempts to decolonise the curriculum and Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter Mark are positive steps in addressing institutional environments that can still be hostile to BAME students.

However, there is still a long way to go for institutions in admitting their systemic racial issues and making real commitments to create environments that are more welcoming of ethnically diverse students (for example, Wong, ElMorally and Copsey-Blake 2021). At the individual course or module level, academics should attempt to identify the ways in which their curriculum favours certain colonised perspectives whilst ignoring more diverse perspectives. Decolonising reading lists and challenging the existing canonical texts is often a positive first step alongside having a more global perspective in the curriculum (Blake, Capper and Jackson, 2022).

The second factor to consider is the student, their circumstances and how contexts outside university might be different for BAME students than they are for white students. For example, the former are more likely the the latter to be commuter students and living at home (Donnelly and Gamsu, 2018). Family commitments and the community external to the university may be strong influencers of their overall experience and identity whilst students at university (Reay, Crozier and Clayton, 2010; Currant, 2020). Examples from my own research (Currant, 2020) include students having to spend time supporting a family business, taking younger siblings to school before heading to university, the role of the church in supporting the student, and family pressures and expectations on the student. 

Kember and Leung (2004) identified that negotiating arrangements with family, work and friends created a greater sense of belonging at university but this may be more problematic in some student circumstances than others. All too often the student experience is shaped by an outdated notion of students as ones who are able to devote all their time to study unhindered by family and community commitments, and by work and financial pressures.

All too often the student experience is shaped by an outdated notion of students as ones who are able to devote all their time to study unhindered by family and community commitments, and by work and financial pressures.

To address this wider context, universities need to take a more nuanced, intersectional approach that recognises that many BAME students:

  • may be commuter students;     
  • may face socio-economic challenges; 
  • are those whose religion plays an important part of their lives;
  • are those whose cultural backgrounds might create particular familial and community expectations (remembering that culture and ethnicity are not the same thing).

Such factors might make it difficult for BAME students to engage in extracurricular or co-curricular activities intended to support belonging. Examples that I have come across are art students unable to afford the train fare into London (a 40 minute journey) for trips to world-renowned art galleries or the student who has to leave immediately after a lecture to pick up his younger sister from school.

The third consideration is staff-student interactions. Staff support and good staff-student learning relationships can increase belonging (for example, Hausmann, Schofield and Woods, 2007), boost BAME students’ confidence (Bunce et al., 2021) and is arguably more important than any other aspect of the student experience (Cousin and Cureton, 2012; Kandiko and Mewer, 2013). However, the proportion of BAME academic staff is less than the proportion of BAME students (HESA, 2021). This BAME staff representation issue is identified by many BAME students as contributing to awarding gaps (Wong, ElMorally and Copsey-Blake, 2021). Increasing the diversity of academic staff is a crucial element in supporting belonging and closing the awarding gap but this will take time to work through the system and is not the only solution to addressing BAME student belonging.

Students also report that racial and cultural bias from lecturers impacts their satisfaction with university and their outcomes (NUS, 2011). Therefore, it is key for academic staff to be mindful of how important all interactions with students are. As academic staff, we need to be aware of our own biases and address race and racism directly whenever it occurs (Quaye and Chang, 2012). Alongside this is the role of the academic advisor or personal tutor. Personal tutors can support student belonging (Cashmore, Scott and Cane, 2012; Lochtie et al., 2018) and a good relationship with a personal tutor is a good indicator of whether a student seeks help and gets the support they need (Yale, 2019).

The fourth consideration is peer interactions. It is worth remembering that BAME students are not born into minority status or minoritised in every social milieu (Harper 2012, p.ix). However, in university, BAME students are usually in a minority amongst their peers. As a result, their peer interactions are more likely to be cross-racial. These interactions can be problematic. For example, Black students report feeling alienated and excluded (NUS, 2011). As a result, BAME students often make university choices to mitigate this minoritisation and understandably many will spend more time in ‘counterspaces’ away from the white dominated university spaces for support and a sense of belonging (Park, 2014). To highlight this, I have included a piece of creative non-fiction drawn from an interview with a student, Janice (pseudonym).

I had agreed to meet Janice at lunch in the refectory. It was a chilly February day. As I walked in, I could feel the contrast in heat to the outside and the windows had steamed up as a result. My ears were assaulted by the expected din of a busy canteen. 

Janice quickly spotted me. She was alone. As we walked towards each other, I was suddenly aware of us as two individuals amongst a sea of people busily chatting and eating. That sense of isolation was to seep through our conversation…

I mean for instance in my class here, I am the only Black person. I think that is the difference.” Janice’s voice dropped speaking that sentence. “Even when you speak to classmates it feels like you are infringing into their space. I just felt that maybe I shouldn’t bother.” 

Janice certainly felt the isolation. “I am on my own. Every day I come in I feel new. I struggle even though I am friends with Melissa. She is about the only person I could say I talk to and I know.” 

Then she uttered the words that really stuck in my head. “I always tell my husband this, every time I come into university it is like my stomach churns, it is so tight it hurts.”

As already mentioned, BAME students seem to derive belonging within the formal, academic sphere rather than the social side of university. This highlights the importance of supporting positive peer interactions within the curriculum through carefully designed collaboration and group work (Blake, Capper and Jackson, 2022).

There are some clear messages from students and the research as to how to make universities more welcoming to different ethnic groups, supportive of their belonging and ultimately improve outcomes and close awarding gaps. These include the following.     

  • Support positive peer interactions in the classroom and address issues of racism. 
  • Staff should check their own biases and to treat students with dignity and respect as human beings, and to listen to them. 
  • Personal tutors should be proactive in building a relationship with them and understanding their particular circumstances which may be different to other students.
  • Universities should acknowledge that their environments can be problematic for BAME students and make genuine attempts to improve those environments. As Kendi (2020) notes “there is no such thing as a non-racist or race-neutral policy. Every policy…is producing or sustaining either racial inequality or equity” (p.18)  

In summary, then, belonging has the potential to support efforts to close the awarding gap between different ethnic groups but only if the specific belonging needs of the groups that are ‘under-awarded’ are understood and addressed.

References

Bell, D (1980) ‘Brown v. board of education and the interest-convergence dilemma’, Harvard Law Review, 93(3), pp.518-533. https://doi.org/10.2307/1340546

Blake, S., Capper, G. and Jackson, A. (2022) Building Belonging in Higher Education: Recommendations for Developing an Integrated Institutional Approach. London: Pearson / WonkHE.            

Broecke, S. and Nicholls, T. (2007) ‘Ethnicity and degree attainment.’ Dept. for Education and Skills Research Report RW92.

Bunce, B., King, N., Saran, S. and Talib, N. (2021) ‘Experiences of black and minority ethnic (BME) students in higher education: Applying self-determination theory to understand the BME attainment gap,’ Studies in Higher Education, 46(2), pp. 534-547. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1643305

Cashmore, A., Scott, J. and Cane, C. (2012). ‘Belonging and ‘intimacy’ factors in the retention of students – an investigation into the student perceptions of effective practice and how that practice can be replicated,’ Paul Hamlyn Foundation: London.

Cousins, G. and Cureton, D. (2012) ‘Disparities in student attainment.’ Higher Education Academy: York. 

Currant, N. (2020) “My stomach churns”: belonging and strategies for belonging for BME students in a white university, EdD Thesis [online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.24384/q9nx-d403 (Accessed: 19 January 2023)

Donnelly, M. and Gamsu, S. (2018) Home and away: social, ethnic and spatial inequalities in student mobility. London: Sutton Trust.

Harper, S. (2012) ‘Foreword’ in Museus, S.D and Jayakumar, U.M. (eds.) Creating Campus Cultures. Abingdon: Routledge.           

Harper, S. and Quaye, S. (2009) ‘Beyond sameness, with engagement and outcomes for All’, in Harper, S. and Quaye, S. (eds.) Student Engagement in Higher Education. Routledge: Abingdon.

Hausmann, L., Schofield, J. and Woods, R. (2007) ‘Sense of belonging as a predictor of intentions to persist among African American and white first-year college students’, Research in Higher Education 48(7), pp. 803-39 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-007-9052-9 

 HESA (2021) ‘Higher education student data’ & ‘Higher education staff data’ [online]. Available at: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students & https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff (Accessed: 19 January 2023).

Kandiko, C. and Mewer, C. (2013) Student expectations and perceptions of higher education. London: King’s Learning Institute.

Kember, D. and Leung, D. (2004) ‘Relationship between the employment of coping mechanisms and a sense of belonging for part-time students’, Educational Psychology, 24(3), pp.345-357. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144341042000211689

Kendi, I.X. (2020) How to be an antiracist. London: Vintage.

Kuh, G. et al. (2005) Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter, San Fancisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lochtie, D, McIntosh, E., Stork, A. and Walker, B.W. Effective personal tutoring in higher education. St Albans: Critical Publishing. 

Meeuwisse, M., Severiens, S. and Born, M. (2010) ‘Learning environment, interaction, sense of belonging and study success in ethnically diverse student groups’, Research in Higher Education, 51, pp. 528–45.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-010-9168-1 

NUS (2011) ‘Race for Equality: A report on the experiences of Black students in further and higher education’, London: NUS.

Reay, D., Crozier, G. and Clayton, J. (2010) ‘‘Fitting in’ or ‘standing out’: working class students in UK higher education,’ British Educational Research Journal, 36(1), pp. 107–124. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411920902878925 

Quaye, S. and Chang, S. (2012) ‘Fostering cultures of inclusion in the classroom’, in Museus S. and Jayakumar U. (eds.) Creating campus cultures, Abingdon: Routledge.

Singh, G. (2009) Black and minority ethnic students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success, York: HEA.

Thomas, L. (2012) ‘Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change,’ final report from the What Works? Student Retention and Success programme, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Tierney, W. (1999) ‘Models of minority college-going and retention: Cultural integrity versus cultural suicide.’ Journal of Negro Education, 68(1), pp. 80-91. https://doi.org/10.2307/2668211

Tinto, V. (1993) Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wong, B., ElMorally, R. and      Copsey-Blake, M. (2021) ‘‘Fair and square’: what do students think about the ethnicity degree awarding gap?’ Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(8), pp. 1147-1161. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2021.1932773

Yale, A. (2019) ‘The personal tutor–student relationship: student expectations and experiences of personal tutoring in higher education,’ Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43(4), pp. 533-544. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377164

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About the author

  • Dr Neil Currant

    Dr Neil Currant is an educational developer focussing on reward and recognition and educational leadership. Neil leads the Advance HE accredited CPD scheme at the University of the Arts London and teaches on the PGCert in Academic Practice. Their research is on student belonging, compassionate pedagogy, assessment practices and ungrading. Previously, Neil has been Head of Educational Development at the University of Bedfordshire and Oxford Brookes University.

How to cite

Currant, N. (2023) Closing Awarding Gaps: Belonging and how to support a diverse student population. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/closing-awarding-gaps-belonging-and-how-to-support-a-diverse-student-population/. (Accessed: 30 January 2023)

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Posted in Edition 3, The Bigger Picture