Tackling differential outcomes for underrepresented students in higher education

A major Office for Students (OfS) programme to address inequalities in higher education has identified new approaches to teaching, improvements in student support, and better understanding of structural barriers and issues.

four jigsaw pieces

Last week we published an independent evaluation of the Addressing Barriers to Student Success (ABSS) programme. The two-year programme saw a £7.5 million investment by the OfS in 17 projects led by universities and colleges across England. The aim was to address inequalities in higher education and the structural barriers some groups of students face in achieving a good degree and going on to graduate-level employment or further study.

The OfS’s strategy for access and participation involves provider-level regulation, through which we agree commitments with providers to reduce gaps in equality of opportunity across the student lifecycle, and also sector-wide support for activity that will not be conducted by providers working alone, such as collaboration and sharing of ‘what works’. 

The ABSS programme delivers on the second part of our strategy. Its findings will help providers meet the commitments they have made to reduce the gaps in student success and progression within their access and participation plans by drawing on approaches that have been tested and evaluated.

The issue

Some groups of students in higher education do not have the same chances as others to succeed. As we enter another national lockdown, there is growing concern that the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to compound disadvantage. It remains crucial that we continue to support students to overcome barriers and to achieve success in education and employment.  

OfS data points to differences in degree and employment outcomes for certain groups of students. For example, graduates from the lowest participation areas (POLAR quintile 1) are least likely to be in highly skilled employment or further study compared with students from the highest participation areas (POLAR quintile 5). The reasons for differential student outcomes are complex and multifaceted – they can be affected by a range of environmental and structural factors.  

The research informing the development of the ABSS programme identified four key areas which can influence student outcomes for better or worse:

  • Teaching and assessment practices
  • Relationships between staff and students
  • Social, cultural and economic capital
  • Psychosocial and identity factors.

The projects

These themes informed the focus and approach of the projects. They were designed to reach and support students from underrepresented groups, including black, Asian and minority ethnic students, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, disabled students, students with mental health conditions, and care leavers. The programme looked at innovative and inclusive approaches to teaching and assessment, enhancing student support and developing a greater sense of belonging for students. Each project addressed a specific issue and implemented a diverse range of interventions covering:

  • Inclusive teaching and learning practices
  • Enhanced student support and well-being
  • Mentoring and peer support
  • Student ambassador programmes
  • Employability skills development and placement support
  • Staff training and development.

Student engagement was an important element of many of the projects. Students were involved in the design and delivery of interventions, including discussions around the curriculum and approaches to learning and assessments. They also supported events and outreach activities and many were employed as student ambassadors.   

Evaluating impact

The programme evaluation report finds evidence of real and positive change as learning from the projects is implemented and embedded. It points to several benefits and outcomes: increased student confidence, resilience and engagement, and improvements in attainment as a result of enhanced student support and more inclusive teaching and learning practices.

The collaborative nature of the projects has helped to promote conversations about inclusion and structural disadvantage within and between universities and colleges, and at national level. There is also growing awareness of the structural barriers and issues facing underrepresented student groups.

The report notes that the approaches and interventions used in the projects are highly transferable, and that the programme has led to accelerated sharing of what works and the roll-out of innovative solutions to a range of providers. It finds that:

  • Inclusive teaching led to increased student confidence and higher attendance levels and higher grades
  • Technology can play an important role in providing an inclusive environment
  • Enhanced student support led to raised confidence and resilience and improved staff understanding and confidence in supporting students from underrepresented groups
  • 1-to-1 support was popular with students from lower participation areas, disabled students and those disclosing mental health conditions
  • Getting buy-in from senior leaders is important and will have a greater impact and chance of future sustainability.

Tackling degree attainment gaps

The degree attainment gap between black and white students is significant. The OfS has developed a key performance measure to measure the sector’s progress in narrowing this gap.

Several projects focused on this issue. Each trialled different approaches, including the development of inclusive curricula and assessment, inclusive teaching methods, student ambassadors, raising awareness and addressing bias.

Kingston University led a project, in partnership with five other universities and colleges, to understand and tackle degree outcome differences between black and white students. One of the aims of the project was to scale up and roll out a dashboard and inclusive curriculum framework across the partnership.  

The dashboard, developed by Kingston University, showed differences in attainment between black and white students which could not be explained by entry qualifications or study subject – the ‘unexplained gaps’. It became a powerful tool for raising awareness of and addressing these attainment gaps.

Students were involved as paid ambassadors and consultants in the design of an inclusive curriculum framework. They helped review course content, made recommendations to staff, facilitated focus groups and provided a perspective on course content and unconscious bias.

The project had a positive impact. Early findings show that the degree attainment gap between black and white students has narrowed in three of the partner providers, although the attainment gap widened in one provider because of an increase in white student attainment.

Find out more about this project 

Enhancing employability

One of the OfS’s objectives is to ensure that students from all backgrounds are able to progress into jobs that use the skills and knowledge they have gained during their higher education studies. A number of projects looked at improving employment outcomes for underrepresented students.

A project led by Aston University aimed to improve employment outcomes for underrepresented students, including those with disabilities, black, Asian and ethnic minority students, and students from low socio-economic backgrounds, by improving student employability and increasing placement uptake. Data from the project partners showed that these groups of students were less likely to do a placement.

A range of interventions was offered to help students prepare for and secure a placement and to enhance their employability. These included professional mentoring, speed recruitment events, accredited employability models, micro-placements (short-term placement opportunities) and a talent bank service (placement matching).

The talent bank service has seen increased levels of engagement with hard to reach students and over 487 students were supported over the two-year period.

Overall, the project demonstrated that for those students who engaged with the interventions there were several benefits, including higher levels of confidence, resilience and career readiness, leading to increased readiness to participate in placements.

The next step will be to understand whether increased placement uptake will lead to increased graduate employment rates for underrepresented students.

Find out more about this project, including links to the employability tool kit that was developed.

We hope that this evidence will help improve the work providers are undertaking to address differential outcomes, and ultimately give all students a fair chance to succeed once they reach higher education. 

See a full list of ABSS programme projects See details of ABSS case studies


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