23 June 2011, Open University Camden Offices, UK
In this seminar, colleagues from across the OU lead an exploration of the factors affecting attainment of ethnic minority students in Higher Education, drawing primarily on research findings at the Open University in the areas of language development, conceptions of learning, unintended bias and personal drive.
We presented the University’s evidence-based response, focusing on five key areas: tutor support, student support, curriculum development, systems and information, research and evaluation.
The seminar sought contributions from participants to present a more rounded view of factors affecting attainment and responses in other contexts, and worked with participants to identify opportunities that will support a continued focus on ethnicity and attainment in a changing higher education environment.
The seminar suggested that half of the attainment gap in ethnic minority students was due to variations in prior academic attainment across different ethnic groups. However, the corollary of this is that ethnic minority students are being awarded grades and degrees that are poorer than one would expect on the basis of their prior qualifications. The seminar suggested that the origins of the under-attainment of ethnic minority students were not to be found in their experience of higher education, their engagement with their courses, their approaches to studying or their conceptions of learning. Whatever factors are responsible, one can be confident that they have nothing to do with the ability of ethnic minority students, as evidenced by their prior qualifications.
Wide ranging discussion took place throughout the event, of which the following account may be useful as a summary:
- Racism and unintended bias were the key elements in the open conversation that followed the discussions
- A more strong response to issue of ethnicity attainment (or racism if more overtly) was advocated, with a counter argument provided that any approach must not have the effect of closing down conversations.
- Do terms like ‘unintended bias’ side-step the issue? How can you keep open dialogue with institutional leaders without causing offence?
- Nervousness about discussing racism with students. Direct discrimination should remain the central issue for institutions, but what room for the forms of discrimination that lead to, for example, students’ assessments being marked differently.
- Raising levels of sensitivity to race issues was proposed as a professional responsibility to deliver teaching to diverse students, and it was seen as unacceptable to lament about the situation.
- Black academic experience was described as very different to other cultural experiences. What implications does this have for teaching? The big challenge for HE is in talking honestly about the issues. In US, case law has been exposing inadequacy of system, and UK will likely follow this route unless it can have the honest conversations.
- Concerns were raised that fragmentation and students focussing on their own experience will mean that any potential for group movement and collective challenge could be limited.
- Can we adopt the language of the institution? Can we use a ‘business case’ approach to deal with the situation? Retention of students? Backlash is a risk – senior staffs may interpret as ‘not needing such students’.
- Will number of black students decrease due to the changes proposed to HE sector? Youth and community and humanities courses being cut, what will young black kids choose now? The possibility of a new black underclass was foreseen. Employability already an issue – test cases being brought by first year students was used as an example.
- On language, intercultural communication, do lecturers know what they want? Who is being assessed? Students or academic staff? Do we need academic advocates for this? Where is there an institution to route complaints and reservations about academic experience for students?