Monday, 8 November 2010

Reflective report on the work of the HEA Summit Initiative/Project (2009-10) on Raising BME Attainment

1. Abstract of Work of the Project

Activities that were completed:
·         Establishing baseline data (see Appendix)
·         Data on BME (employability) mentoring scheme (see Appendix)
·         The University adopted a high-level performance indicator on BME attainment as part of its Academic Strategy in December 2009, following suggestions made by the project team to Prof. Peter Bush, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic)
·         Funding to support the formation of “Padare” group and mentoring scheme for BME students on social work course

Activities that are continuing:
·         Qualitative research into BME success (expected to be completed by the end of March 2010). Results likely to be published shortly afterwards with recommendations for future action
·         Monitoring of a BME (Black African) student support group in social work (“Padare”). Base-line data (for 2009) on attainment of Black-African Social Work students is being obtained. Over the next 3 years this information will be monitored to ascertain if the support group has an effect on raising attainment over this period.
·         On-going Monitoring of BME Attainment data

2. Context and history/rationale for the initiative at the University of Northampton

Prior to undertaking this project we had identified that (home) BME students were consistently performing less well compared to White students in respect of “good degrees”[1] across the University. This difference averages (over the previous four years) 21% (for Asian students) and 14% for Black students. There are also higher failure rates for BME students (i.e. where no award is made). However there are variations both between academic Schools and between subjects/courses.

Over the previous 2 years there have been small research projects undertaken in respect of performance in different types of assessments (Law Division), failure of BME students on work placement (Social work Division) and some work examining the experience/support needs of BME students on professional teacher training and early years courses. However, these projects had not led on to systematic reviews within the institution of these issues. We hoped, through participation within the HEA Summit programme, to draw on this research, interrogate our data information systems to explore hypotheses for raising attainment, support future interventions to address identified under-performance of BME students and monitor the results of such interventions.

We also decided we would like, if possible, to investigate those subject areas where the disparity does not exist and/or where degree attainment is above the average to see if there are factors which can be identified that might enable us to raise attainment in other areas. This would be undertaken by commissioning some qualitative research whereby students and academics on such courses/modules would be interviewed to ascertain if they had insights into what might support successful interventions to raise attainment and/or support success.

Our project team was chosen to reflect these approaches and was made up of: Paul Crofts (Equality & Diversity Advisor and “team leader”), Dr. Terry Tudor (Postdoctoral Fellow in Wastes Management), Angie Bartoli (Senior Lecturer in Social Work), and Yvonne Watson (Head of Division - Fashion and Textiles)[2]. The project team was also supported by Lydia Wallman and David Clinton (Information and Planning Unit), and Prof. Andy Pilkington (Division of Sociology).

The first meeting of the project group was held on March 3rd 2009.

3. Strategy

At the early stages of the project an action plan was drawn up that was informed by the following strategic objectives:
1.   Establishing baseline data on attainment at the University and interrogating it to ascertain what the situation is in respect of ethnicity and:
    • Part-time/full-time status
    • Gender
    • Disability
    • Attainment in the “principle module” (dissertation)
2.   Was there any evidence that mentoring schemes or support groups (such as the “Padare” group in Social Work) for BME students have an effect on raising attainment?
3.   Could the students and teaching staff on courses/modules where BME students are doing well have any insights for other areas of the University?
4.   Could the University be persuaded to adopt high level performance indicators for raising BME attainment over the next period of the strategic plan (2010-15)?

4. Activities completed

Activities that were completed:
·         Establishing baseline data (results are attached as an Appendix)
·         Data on BME (employability) mentoring scheme (results are also in Appendix)
·         The University adopted a high-level performance indicator on BME attainment as part of its Academic Strategy in December 2009, following suggestions made by the project team to Prof. Peter Bush, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic)

5. Activities continuing

Activities that are continuing:
·         Qualitative research into BME success (expected to be completed by the end of March 2010)
·         Monitoring of a BME (Black African) student support group in social work (“Padare”). Base-line data (for 2009) on attainment of Black-African Social Work students is being obtained. Over the next 3 years this information will be monitored to ascertain if the support group has an effect on raising attainment over this period.
·         Presentation on the work of the project at a University-wide Learning and Teaching seminar in June.

6. Key successes or achievements

Despite the relatively short time period over which it was conducted, our project was able to realise a number of achievements. A crucial achievement was having the support of our Directorate. The Pro Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for academic affairs, though not a member of the core team, was kept up to date with progress and meetings were held to discuss project goals. As a result of this support we were able to have a key performance indicator around raising BME attainment included within the University’s Academic Strategy. It is also likely that such a KPI will be included in the University’s revised Equality Scheme 2010-15.

The project team was drawn from two academic Schools and student support departments across the University. As a result of this combination of representatives, it was possible for us to get a ‘holistic’ picture of the issues surrounding degree attainment amongst BME students. For example, our team included representatives from our Information and Planning Unit (IPU), which is the department that compiles and processes data on student progression and degree attainment. Engagement and support from IPU meant that it was possible for us to attain quantitative data about students, broken down in a manner which was relevant to the project aims and objectives.

We were able to build networks with other Universities. We met with and discussed ideas for collaborating with three other local universities. While it will not be possible to take forward all of the proposals discussed, the sharing of ideas and best practice has resulted not only in connections being made, but also suggestions about how all parties could improve on what is currently being done to assist BME students.

Another achievement was the provision of support for a mentoring scheme for Black African social work students (“Padare” group), which is being coordinated by one member of the project team. This scheme aims to pair African students on the social work programme with suitable social worker mentors. In some cases these mentors also happened to be past students of the programme.

Finally, we were also successful in conducting both the quantitative research (mentioned above in conjunction with the IPU), as well as qualitative research involving interviews with both students and staff. Even though all of the interviews have not been completed within the project time frame (as of 18-2-10), this approach is significant, because the combination of quantitative and qualitative data has provided us with both degree attainment rates, as well as the contextual information surrounding these rates and may also point to and/or inform future initiatives.

7. Challenges that have been overcome

In undertaking this project, we faced a number of challenges, some of which were easier to overcome than others. Perhaps one of the key challenges at the outset was what focus the project should take. Most of the other studies that we looked at seem to have focused on ‘negatives’, i.e. what prevented BME students from gaining a ‘good’ degree. Given this observation, and after much discussion, we therefore decided that rather than following previous approaches, we would instead look at the ‘positives’. In other words, what were the key factors that enabled some BME students to succeed?

Another challenge was maintaining momentum. For all of the project team, with the exception of the lead, the project entailed working on issues that were not part of their day to day job. Thus, making time and maintaining focus was not always easy. This challenge was overcome in large measure through the hard work and coordinating efforts of the project lead. In addition, meetings were held and regular communication (primarily via email), were both crucial for planning and coordination and maintaining the momentum.

We decided that it would be important to undertake interviews with both staff and students in order to gain an understanding of the context for attainment. In going about this, one challenge facing us was reaching past students. In order to overcome this, we worked with the individuals who did the interviews on our behalf to identify students via our alumni department, as well as through staff within our academic Schools which have most contact with BME students.

8. Future Plans

We hope that the work of the project, as identified above, will continue albeit in a different way. A recommendation will be made to our Learning & Teaching Committee that an on-going working group be established to monitor work/initiatives on raising BME attainment over the next 5 years. This may also incorporate the work of a related but parallel HEA project within the institution on “inclusive learning and teaching”.

A key performance indicator on raising BME attainment will apply across the University and all academic Schools and Departments will be invited to sponsor initiatives that may contribute to meeting this objective. In particular we believe that initiatives to address the following will (whilst raising attainment generally) contribute particularly to the objective of raising BME attainment:
·         Raising the attainment of part-time students
·         Supporting initiatives towards inclusive learning and teaching that take on the “race” agenda as well as that of disability
·         Examining assessments from the perspective of inclusivity
·         Promoting mentoring schemes (or where mentoring schemes already exist) and ensuring that BME students are included within them on at least a proportionate basis

The project group would also invite academic Schools and departments to consider positive action measures that are run by and/or for BME students (such as the “Padare” group) with the specific objective of contributing to raising attainment and giving BME students a voice. The qualitative research that has been commissioned (but has not yet reported) may also feed in some insights into these possibilities.

Whatever initiatives or projects may develop over the next period it is vitally important that baseline data is available before they start and the situation is then monitored to see if it actually has an effect on raising attainment. Such on-going monitoring and evaluation is vitally important in trying to ascertain what may or may not work. Such insights may significantly contribute to advancing work on this issue across the whole HE sector.

9. Personal reflections:

a.                    Terry Tudor

I have enjoyed being involved in this project. It has been good to meet and collaborate with individuals both from at work, as well as at other universities who had it not been for the project, I would most likely have not had the fortune to interact with. I think despite the limitation in project time and given that for the most part we did it on the back of our ‘day’ job, we were able to achieve much. Having come to the end of the project and given its potential, I’ve come to three key realisations. First, thus far, we have merely scratched the surface of the issues. There is much yet to be done. Hence it would have been good if the project had been longer. Second, and linked to the first, is that it would have been helpful if there had been some financial support provided from the HEA for the project. If this had been the case, then more could have been achieved, and perhaps the work done could have been continued over a longer period of time. Third, I don’t remember at any time there being any mention of the word ‘racism’ by any of the institutions involved in the project. However, without doubt, this is one of the factors that does influence degree attainment amongst BME students.

b.    Angie Bartoli


I too have enjoyed being involved in this project and embraced it with enthusiasm and great expectations. Now, as it draws to a close, I am left feeling somewhat ‘flat’ and it becomes all too easy to dwell on the mountain left to climb rather than the achievements gained along the way. One of the most frustrating things of the project was the lack of openness to discuss the issue of racism and its impact on identity, learning and attainment at the summit days. At times, it appeared that the need to maintain social politeness prevailed, which avoided the ‘R’ word being mentioned, and at times (especially during informal gatherings such as lunch) the existence of institutional racism was refuted. On reflection, my expectations were too high and too unrealistic, expecting a short-term project to undo centuries of oppression were idealistic and go some way to explain my sense of ‘so what did we achieve?’


Our approach to consider the positives and build upon achievement rather than dwell on low attainment of BME students was refreshing and motivating. This is a perspective and lesson that could be shared with the institution as a whole as well as with the student body.  My concern is that without a specific project group, the issue will remain a concern, but one that falls between people’s job roles and responsibilities and into gaps that no one in particular fills.

c.     Paul Crofts

I broadly agree with the observations/reflections that Terry has made (above).

With hindsight I may not have been the best person to “lead” the project as I was not in a “mainstream” position in the University. If establishing such a project was being considered again, it might be important to invite either a senior academic from our Learning & Teaching Committee and/or Dean to lead the project. My role would than have been as a member of the team (providing back-up and admin support), but not to lead it.

10.       Lessons for other institutions

In summary we think the following “lessons” may be helpful to other institutions:

1.        Establish clear data baselines in order to potentially measure success or failure (both overall across the institution and for targeted initiatives) and to map out the nature of the issues within your specific institution
2.        Gain senior management support for the work and a commitment to take issues forward
3.        Try not to do too much. Be realistic and not over-ambitious. Recognise that much of this project work is “beyond the call of duty” for those involved. Don’t exploit people’s commitment too much!
4.        Develop an “exit” strategy for how the work will be continued beyond the life of the project and “mainstreamed” into the day to day work of the University

11.       Additional Information/Reflections

In many ways, the scope of the project was large and on reflection in order for it to work strategically, have an impact on a longer term basis, it needs more financial investment, or it runs the risk of being seen as tokenistic. A full time funded coordinator for the project, over a longer period of time (for example two years) would have been more productive and effective. This Project Coordinator would then have the ‘head space’ and time to devote to the work.

Appendix: Summary of Data Analysis

1.    Student Attainment overall (Source: report from IPU 10-09 for the academic year 2007-8)

·         There is consistent and clear evidence that BME students (excluding international students based on fee status) are achieving fewer “good degrees” compared to white students at the University of Northampton: 61.1% of White students achieved a good degree, compared to 42.0% of BME students – a gap of around 20 %-points.
·         The above data is consistent with previous monitoring reports which show a consistent pattern of significant difference between BME and white students (see report: “A Statistical Overview of “Good” Degrees awarded 2004 - 2007 and Recommendations for Future Action”

2.    Part-time/Full time data (Source: report from IPU 10-09 for the academic year 2007-8)

·         BME part-time students do significantly less well than White part-time students in achieving good degrees (29.7 %-point difference; 14.8% compared to 44.5%);
·         BME full-time students do less well than White full-time students but the gap is smaller (14 %-point difference; 48.5% compared to 62.5%)
·         BME part-time students do significantly less well in gaining good degrees than full-time BME students (33.7 %-point difference; 14.8% compared to 48.5%). The percentage-point difference between White part-time and full-time students is 18% (44.5% compared to 62.5%).
·         There is a significant difference between the proportion of BME and White students studying part-time (18.2 % compared to 8.2% respectively)

3.    Ethnicity and Disability (Source: report from IPU 10-09 for the academic year 2007-8)

·         Disabled BME students do significantly less well in gaining good degrees than disabled White students (45.0% compared to 60.5%; a difference of 15.5 %-points)
·         Disabled BME students gain slightly more good degrees than those BME students with no known disability (45.0% compared with 41.8%; a difference of 3.2 %-points)
·         Disabled White students do slightly less well than those with no known disability (60.5% compared to 61.1%; a difference of 0.6 %-points)

4.    Ethnicity, achievement and mentoring (Source: report from IPU 10-09 for the academic year 2007-8)

·         For some years the University has run an employability mentoring scheme for BME students in conjunction with the National Mentoring Consortium. Whilst this scheme is focused on issues of employability there was some anecdotal evidence that the scheme also raised attainment for some students.
·         Following an analysis of attainment for those students (43 students including those students withdrawing from courses, 37 students gaining an award) who have been on this scheme for the past 5 years (2001/2-6/7), there seems to be some evidence that the scheme has an effect on raising attainment. The proportion of good degrees gained by students on the mentoring scheme was 54%, compared to a rate of 42% for all BME students in 2007/8. However, given that students who join the scheme are self-selecting, there is no way of knowing whether the student cohort on the scheme is reflective or not of the overall BME student population so this conclusion is very tentative!

Attainment and the Principle Module(s) (Source: report from IPU 10-09 for the academic year 2007-8; Principle Modules include 40 and 20 credit Dissertation modules, Art Portfolios, Final Projects etc.)

·         Combining the principle module results for all students, BME students are achieving significantly fewer good degree equivalent results within the principle modules than White students (42.3% and 54.0% respectively; a difference of 11.7 %-points). However, the overall difference in good degrees between BME and White students is around 20% (2007-8) so relatively BME students must be doing better on the dissertation modules than in other forms of assessment.

[1] “Good Degree” is defined a first and 2:1
[2] Yvonne Watson had to leave the project at the end of 2009 having found another position at a university in the United States.