Closing the awarding gap
The degree awarding gap in higher education (formerly ‘attainment gap’) is the difference in the proportion of two student groups receiving a first or second-class degree.
Across the sector there are significant and enduring awarding gaps for students from minority groups. Over a five-year span, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME*) students were consistently awarded fewer ‘good’ degrees than their white peers and in 2019/20 the BAME-white awarding gap was 9.9%. Awarding gaps are particularly pronounced for Black students and the average Black-white awarding gap was 18.7%.
According to Advance HE and the UUK/NSS Closing the Gap report on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment at UK universities (2019) ‘unexplained’ gaps remain when student’s prior attainment (e.g., A-level grades or UCAS entry points) is considered.
The awarding gap between students from the most and least deprived areas of the UK (as measured by IMD and POLAR rankings*) is also a sector-wide problem. In 2019/20 the gaps were 15.2% (IMD Q1:5) and 8.8% (POLAR Q1:5), representing a slight narrowing of the gap over five years.
The sector reported consistently lower rates of good awards for students with a declared disability. Over five years this gap was reduced from 2.8% in 2015/16 to 1.3% in 2019/20.
*‘BAME’ is an administrative term that does not refer to a single homogenous group. A wide variety of ethnic communities and lived experiences are collapsed into this label.
**The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) is the official measure of relative poverty between small areas of the UK, based on multiple factors such as income and employment rates. The Participation Of Local Area (POLAR) classification ranks areas of the UK based on rates of access to higher education.
Examining the awarding gap at Reading
The University of Reading’s target is to reduce the awarding gap between Black and minority ethnic students and white students to 5% in 2024/25. We also aim to eliminate the awarding gap between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds by 2024/25. Read more about these targets and our other commitments to underrepresented groups in our Access and Participation Plan.
Currently degree outcomes at the University of Reading resemble the national picture. The gap between for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and white students decreased from 11.9% in 2015/16 to 8.2% in 2019/20. For most institutions, the gap between Black and white students is the largest; between 10% and 20% in 2019/20. At the University of Reading this gap was 13.2% in 2019/20 and 20.2% in 2018/2019
The awarding gap between students from the most and least deprived areas (IMD Q1:5) increased from 8.6% in 2015/16 to a figure more in line with the sector average, 17.6%, in 2018/19. It then shrank to 11.2% in 2019/20.
The university is monitoring its awarding gap for students with a declared disability despite a ‘reverse gap’ of -1.3% in 2019/20. Previous years were more aligned with other universities as between 2016/17 and 2018/19 this awarding gap moved from 3.4% to 2.1%.
As a result of the Covid pandemic considerable changes in assessment practices are likely to have reduced the size of awarding gaps, although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what changes will have caused this based on one years’ worth of data. Regardless, it is important to note that the gaps remain significant and there are a range of structural contributing factors.
The Student Voice
Students at the University of Reading who participated in focus groups were largely unaware of the national ethnicity degree awarding gap. They were inclined to explain its existence through the lens of individual aptitude however some acknowledged the role of social and structural barriers (Wong, ElMorally & Copsey-Blake, 2021).
Active listening has highlighted the role of racism and structural inequality in diminishing experience, belonging and success, such as a lack of BAME role models and discriminatory treatment.
Students spoken to emphasise the restorative potential of ‘visible change’ as “it makes us feel like they care when what we’re saying is being acted on”. They cited the ways that teaching staff made them feel included and respected, such as by learning to pronounce their name or encouraging them to share their opinion in learning environments. However, students from all levels and backgrounds expressed frustration towards a perceived slow rate of change and an institutional ‘disinterest’ in Black, Asian and minority ethnic experiences.