Awarding gaps within the higher education sector make for uncomfortable reading: White students are more likely to get good degrees than students from minority ethnic backgrounds by a significant margin. Analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data in 2020/21 signals an 8.8% gap between the proportion of White students who are awarded firsts and 2:1s and students of other ethnicities, and underlying detail points to an 18.4% gap for students of Black heritage.
At the University of Huddersfield, our population is ethnically diverse with 45% of our students from minority groups, including 26% from Pakistani heritage, and 85% of those from minority ethnic heritage are also from Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) disadvantaged households (according to HESA). Huddersfield sits within one of the most socio-economically deprived areas in England, and the University takes its responsibility in helping to drive social change seriously. Graduate employment can depend on holding an upper second-degree classification as a minimum, therefore, if we are to make a difference for our students and enable them all to access well-paid career pathways, we have to eliminate awarding gaps to ensure equality of opportunity.
In 2017 we started working on what has become the ‘Huddersfield Differential Attainment Project’ (HuDAP), which uses data in a highly targeted way to identify gaps by student characteristics at course level, and action plan amelioration at course and cohort level. According to Office for Students data from March 2022, we reported no statistically significant differences between the awarding of White students vs Black and Mixed ethnic groupings. In short we had closed the gap for students identifying as Black or of Mixed heritage, and although there is still work to do in closing the gap between White and Asian ethnic groupings, the gap here is narrowing. It is too early to celebrate success as of course we to need sustain and improve our performance, but we believe we have identified what works for us, and that is adopting the British Cycling approach of “marginal gains”.
Taking a close look at performance data
When British Cycling started to turn their fortunes around, their first step was to examine every facet of the sport in minute detail. When we started analysing our own internal awarding data, we took a similar approach; set aside the big-picture good degree outcomes by Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic criteria and instead looked at assessment performance module by module, across a wider range of ethnic characteristics, and including IMD, qualifications on entry and attendance to build a very detailed picture of student performance.
Step two was working out what the data told us, and there were some real surprises here. We discovered that the main determinant of lower awarding was student qualifications on entry, in particular if you were from BTEC programmes rather than the more standard three A-level route, irrespective of ethnicity. Of course, it is tricky disentangling ethnicity from other factors. 60% of our students commute from within a 30-mile radius of Huddersfield, and anecdotal evidence from colleagues involved in recruitment tells us that a lot of our feeder colleges offer BTEC rather than A-levels as it better serves their intake. These institutions are based in diverse communities. So, if you are a Pakistani student from the West Yorkshire area, you may well be from an IMD 1 household and have found yourself studying BTEC programmes simply because this is what is offered by local education providers - any of these factors could impact on degree performance. However, we saw lower performance for all ethnicities, including White, where students arrived with BTEC qualifications when compensating for other factors.
Detailed analysis of module marks told us that the difference in performance by ethnicity was not as pronounced as the difference in degree outcome data. When aggregated by department, we found that for example, module marks for White students might present a median of 63, where Pakistani and Black students had a median of 58, just a couple of marks below the good degree outcome boundary. This suggested that small changes in our teaching and learning might help our students leverage a couple of extra marks in assessments and take them into the good degree arena. In essence, we were starting to think in terms of marginal gains.
Using data to drive change
Early identification of the impact of BTEC on awarding led to what became our Flying Start project, which won a Guardian University Award and the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults Social Justice Prize in 2018. Initially piloted across a small number of targeted courses, students were introduced to study skills from day one, with an emphasis on activities designed to foster community building and early development of a sense of “belonging”. In science and engineering areas this included intensive mathematics coaching, in humanities students were encouraged to reimagine themselves as researchers through research “treasure hunting”. Its early success, indicated through improved retention and awarding in year one assessment, led to adoption of the Flying Start approach across the vast majority of our courses, and it sits at the core of our transition initiatives.
HuDAP has also led us to understand that there is no single big solution to awarding gaps, each data set is shaped by the context of the courses and their distinctive student intake. All Schools have to produce an annual HuDAP action plan, which sets out School, Department and course level responses to their data, with everything from course design, assessment mechanisms, physical and virtual estate and student support to teaching technique under scrutiny to ensure we help our students to perform to their optimum in assessment. There is a shift away from exams towards more authentic portfolio assessments, and there is greater emphasis on student guidance and support, particularly with first year students who are predominantly from BTEC backgrounds. Our tutorial system is based around the philosophy of personal academic progress review to help students identify where to target efforts to get those extra few marks. Innovation is encouraged, with support for all staff in developing engaging approaches to teaching and learning best suited to their cohorts.
Whole team approach
The Strategic Teaching and Learning Team behind HuDAP is multidisciplinary and includes a wide range of special interest and expertise. Led by our PVC for Teaching and Learning Professor Jane Owen-Lynch, we have seconded a data scientist, whose datasets underpin the whole project, he works with our central planning team, harvesting data annually to put through his HuDAP process. We have pedagogic specialists who help academic teams interpret data and develop impactful improvement plans, we support colleagues through training in our systems and technologies and have recently added a senior learning technologist to our team to help us optimise the use of our learning platforms. HuDAP has led to an impressive portfolio of projects and initiatives across the University, and we have our project director keeping us on track, monitoring progress.
HuDAP is complex; its aim is to drive small changes which aggregate into sustainable and authentic elimination of awarding gaps across all characteristics and is very much dependent on the commitment and effort of colleagues within our academic schools. They are the ones who identify those small changes that have the potential to make a big difference for our students.
Whether we have discovered a winning approach for our students, only time will tell. Performance data to date is encouraging, and in 2022 HuDAP earned the Times Higher Education award for Outstanding Contribution in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Not quite a yellow jersey, but perhaps an indication that we are towards the front of the peloton.
Dr Ruth Stoker is Director of the Strategic Teaching and Learning Team at the University of Huddersfield.
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