Continuation and attainment gaps

Continuation refers to a student’s continuation from one year of study to the next.

Attainment refers to the higher education outcomes achieved by students, such as the classes of degree awarded.

Continuation and attainment relate to the ‘success’ stage of the student lifecycle.

Students who are underrepresented in higher education are less likely to continue with their studies or achieve the same results compared with their peers. We refer to these differences as continuation and attainment gaps.

Why is this important?

Evidence shows that gaps in continuation and attainment at higher education persist for underrepresented groups of students, even when taking into account a student’s entry grades or qualifications.

Latest analysis shows that the gap in non-continuation rates for black and Asian students compared with white students has increased.

There are also significant continuation gaps for students with BTEC qualifications compared with those who enter with A-levels.

Our analysis on degree outcomes, which looks at the classes of degree awarded and graduate employment data, shows that attainment gaps persist for:

  • black, Asian and other minority ethnic students compared with white students
  • disabled students compared with students without a disability
  • students from low-participation areas (POLAR quintile 1) compared with students from high-participation areas (POLAR quintile 5).

What are the reasons for this?

A critical review has shown that three factors underpin these differences:

This is the wider context of learning, including both the structure of the English higher education system and socio-historical and cultural structures such as those of race, ethnicity, culture, gender and social background that are embedded in the wider environment within which providers and students operate.

This includes individual providers and related structures which form the specific contexts within which student outcomes arise.

This is the level of communication between individual students and staff in the higher education setting, including the micro-interactions that take place on a day to day level.

Within these structures and influences, the report found four key explanatory factors of disparities in student outcomes, drawing from the work of the Disparities in Student Attainment (DiSA) project:

Different student groups have different levels of satisfaction with the higher education curricula and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.

A sense of ‘belonging’ is a key factor that influences student outcomes.

There are recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support.

Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and engagement with learning and extra-curricular activities.

How far students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their organisations and with staff members is important. Such interactions can both help and limit students’ learning and attainment.

Effective practice

When designing approaches to eliminate continuation and attainment gaps, providers should think about:

  • how these explanatory factors apply to their own contexts
  • where they may sit within the macro, meso or micro structures outlined above
  • how these approaches complement broader organisational strategies, for example safeguarding students with particular characteristics and supporting student mental health and wellbeing.

Providers working to address differential continuation and attainment rates often make specific interventions to address one or more of the explanatory factors.

Examples of activities that providers are undertaking in these areas are outlined below.

Curricula and learning, including teaching and assessment practices

A partnership of universities have collaborated with local colleges to develop joined-up approaches to improve the transition experiences and outcomes of BTEC students at university. This includes:

  • an online module to support BTEC students’ pre entry to university
  • targeted mathematics and academic writing support where appropriate.

Some providers have worked together to introduce a new tool to measure differences in attainment and a more inclusive curriculum.

The value added metric tool highlights differences in attainment which cannot be explained by student entry qualifications or the subject of study. This moves discussions beyond the student deficit model, leading to effective action and cultural change.

The inclusive curricula framework ensures success for all students by requiring the curriculum to:

  • be accessible
  • reflect students’ backgrounds
  • prepare them to positively contribute to a global and diverse workplace.

Read more about the value added metric and inclusive curriculum framework project.

A group of providers are working with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students to re-design learning and assessment practices to address attainment gaps.

This involves:

  • developing institutionalised support mechanisms to expand opportunities for BAME students and Muslim women
  • supporting staff to work with students to design more inclusive assessment practices
  • developing resources for inclusive and effective assessment practices based on collaborative evidence.

A group of three universities are scaling-up Active Collaborative Learning for Student Success.

Focusing on active pedagogies and inclusive curriculum design, they are moving the focus from ‘add on’ support for specific groups of students to a core, structural change that removes unintended barriers to student success.

Using SCALE-UP (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies) and team-based learning, students learn through problem-solving and enquiry-based activities carried out in strategically assigned groups.

Classrooms are also re-designed to incorporate circular tables and technologies, enabling students to share their work in small groups, discuss and debate all facilitated by the lecturer.

Relationships between staff and students and among students

Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration (RARA) is a targeted personal tutoring support programme being rolled out by three providers.

The programme uses personal tutoring to narrow gaps in student attainment. It aims to give students a sense of belonging and encourages them to draw on available support.

The programme uses:

  • online platforms to track and enhance student progression and attainment
  • a series of specific policies and principles for personal tutoring
  • staff continuing professional development (CPD) initiatives to improve provision.

DRIVER (Data Responsive Initiatives as a Vehicle for achieving Equity in Results) is a West Midlands regional partnership project that uses learner analytics to personalise support for students.

Addressing the student as an individual, learner analytics are used to inform learning conversations between staff and students which encourage students to engage in support activities.

The issues raised during conversations will also support institutional learning so that effective practice and approaches are appropriately identified, resourced and shared.

Social, cultural and economic capital

The Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme spans three participating providers. It engages with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students (both home and international) and those from low socio-economic groups to:

  • increase academic attainment
  • improve students’ sense of belonging
  • improve student engagement
  • improve students’ wellbeing
  • improve students’ interpersonal skills
  • give students the ability to confidently tackle discriminatory behaviour.

Psychosocial and identity factors

Four providers are working in partnership on a project called Changing Mindsets, a student and staff workshop-based approach that builds the belief that ability develops through effort and by embracing challenge.

The approach aims to close the attainment gap in student experience, retention, progression, academic attainment and employability by changing mindsets and culture, eroding stereotype threat and implicit bias for both staff and students as barriers to learning.

A partnership of three universities, Universities UK and Student Minds is implementing a strategic approach to mental wellbeing in higher education based on the Universities UK Step Change Framework and the whole university approach.

As part of this work, a suite of improvement tools and a validated mental health and wellbeing audit will be developed and applied to a range of providers who have developed their own individual mental health strategies.

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