Degree-awarding gaps: a targeted approach

Recognising the diversity of students encompassed in the acronym ‘BAME’, the University of Winchester carried out targeted research to understand black and Asian students’ individual experiences to inform its approach to closing awarding gaps.

The University of Winchester’s 2020-25 access and participation plan (APP) acknowledged the complex nature of each individual student journey, particularly when considering intersectional factors. It also recognised that there is no ‘silver bullet’ to eliminate degree-awarding gaps.

When considering how to address its own black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) awarding gaps, the university developed its ‘Flourishing Students’ theory of change model to take a more holistic approach.

The model, as outlined in the APP, recognised the importance of committing to three priority areas that would create an inclusive learning and teaching environment in which all students are able to flourish:

  1. Develop knowledge and understanding of ‘explained’ and ‘unexplained’ gaps in degree outcomes.
  2. Ensure there is an inclusive learning environment where all students have a sense of ‘belonging’.
  3. Take a student-centred approach to enable all students to flourish and celebrate their achievements.

The first commitment acknowledged the importance of engaging in research and innovative practice that would support staff and the wider sector to better understand why these gaps exist and how to address them.

In addition to quantitative data sets, the university sought to use qualitative research to better understand the experiences of its black and Asian students and the factors that could be contributing to differential degree outcomes for students from these groups. In doing so, it hoped to further develop its approach to closing degree awarding gaps for black and Asian students.

The University of Winchester largely mirrors its locality, with around 92 per cent of the local population identifying as white British.

The University has had a relatively steady recruitment rate of BAME UK-domicile students of around 10 per cent (typically 3 per cent black and 4 per cent Asian), and historically attracts a significant number of local applicants.

In the period 2016-2020, 57 per cent of UK-domiciled placed applicants lived in Hampshire or the surrounding local authorities; by contrast, only 6 per cent lived in London.

When writing its five-year APP, the University of Winchester used the OfS data dashboard as its primary dataset. This indicated it had persistent gaps in degree outcomes for BAME students. This was 16.4 percentage points in 2017-18.

The university identified larger awarding gaps for its black and Asian students, with a gap of 22.1 percentage points for black students and a statistically significant gap of 32.3 percentage points for Asian students.

Demonstrating the importance of awarding gaps given its small numbers has been challenging, yet the emergence of a two-year statistically significant gap for Asian students highlighted the need for targeted action.

Black Degree Awarding Gap (BDAG) Research

In 2019, the University of Winchester joined Leeds Beckett University and the University of East Anglia in a collaborative qualitative research study into the lived experience of black students conducted by Alterline research agency.

The study found that many black students experienced systemic and implicit racism throughout their formal education, and that a complex series of factors shaped individual experiences and outcomes.

‘The basic fact of being a black minority in a white space, being taught by white tutors and surrounded by white peers has the capacity to reduce the academic performance of black students, because of the unconscious expectations based on societal stereotypes, their internalisation by black students and the way these play out in the learning environment.’ (Alterline, March 2019)

Where previous internal attempts to conduct qualitative research with black students had failed, Alterline’s use of black researchers engaged 20 black students from Winchester to participate in either an in-depth life story interview or a reflective journal.

Asian Degree Awarding Gap (ADAG) Research

In response to the concerning Asian degree-awarding gap during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years, the university’s disaggregation of data warranted a qualitative investigation of its Asian students’ experience. The aim was to provide possible explanations and targeted measures of support.

This was especially pressing given the lack of research in this area, despite Asian students historically reporting lower levels of satisfaction in the National Student Survey and Student Academic Experience Survey.

Utilising the university’s student-staff partnership scheme (the Winchester Research Apprenticeship Programme) allowed for two paid student research partners, Isabella Valente and Zuni Khan, to be involved with research design, data collection and analysis.

In total, 25 Asian students responded to an online survey, with 12 attending a follow-up focus group. Using themes adapted from Alterline’s interview guides, focus groups explored: identity, university and on-campus experiences, learning and teaching experiences and future aspirations.

The project identified 22 recommendations relating to campus culture, access, success and progression, learning and teaching and the Winchester Student Union. These were reviewed and ranked in priority order by Winchester Student Union’s Asian Student Network.

Both final reports and recommendations have been taken to committees and departments enabling senior leaders to see beyond small data sets and acknowledge the diverse and complex experiences of the students. Actions taken following the Alterline report include:

  • Co-creating a ‘Black Student Guide’ with Winchester Student Union’s Afro-Caribbean Network
  • Advancing efforts to ‘diversifying towards decolonising the curriculum’, including targeted workshops with programme leaders and a two-week Decolonising the Curriculum series of events
  • Establishing the Race Equality Action Group, a working group co-chaired by the Assistant Vice-Chancellor
  • Recruiting and training BAME Student Ambassadors who lead projects to improve BAME students’ access and experiences.

The ADAG research has informed practice both at the university and within the sector. The recommendations arising from the report have been embedded into the university’s wider race equality action plan, with the following already actioned:

  • Provisions to expand and improve upon prayer spaces across the university campuses
  • Working with the Winchester Student Union to establish an Asian student network, diversify campaigns and events, enhance racial harassment policies and procedures and train Student Academic Representatives (STARs) on unconscious bias and allyship
  • Promotion and targeting of young adult carers’ support (in development)
  • Establishing a social justice fund to support students financially who wish to undertake projects related to the university’s social justice values (in development).

Externally, a professional report was released in January 2021, with dissemination via blogs, the North West Awards Gap Group, Inside Government and NEON.

Of most significance, the university has made progress in closing the awarding gap. Its awarding gap has narrowed from 21 percentage points to 8 percentage points in the last four years. Its Asian degree-awarding gap has closed to 6 percentage points and our black awarding gap has closed to 15 percentage points.

Further details

See the university's website.


Sarah-Louise Collins (Director of Widening Participation), Maisha Islam (Student Engagement Research and Projects Officer) and Michael Hall (Widening Participation Evaluation and Research Officer)

Published 24 November 2021

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