Bridging the BME gap

28/04/2016  -  2.52

Dr Debra Cureton

Recently, minority group student experience in Higher Education has been a hot topic in the press. Here, Dr Debra Cureton, Research Development Manager, discusses how the University of Wolverhampton is working to reduce the differing degree outcomes between ethnicity groups.

In January, following the release of a report entitled ‘Exploring ethnic inequalities in admission to Russell Group universities’, written by Dr Vikki Boliver, the Prime Minister condemned the lack of accessibility for BME students to Russell Group Universities and made the shocking claim that “ If you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university”.

In this report he also indicated his intention to improve numbers of minority students studying in higher education by 2020.

This was followed by reports about leaked documents in the Telegraph which reveal that some top universities do not provide value for the fees they charge.

This has led BIS to question whether the 2020 target can be met from within the established sector alone.

A few days later, a TUC analysis of the Labour Force Survey highlighted that graduates from ethnic minorities are two and a half times more likely to unemployed than their white counterparts.


Next appeared an article in The Sunday Times (24th April, 2016) written by Malia Bouattia, the first black female and the first Muslim president of the National Student’s Union, defending her election and revealing that ‘ within days of arriving at Birmingham University as an undergraduate, I found myself on the brink of dropping out’ as she was the only black woman on her courses and she felt very unwelcome

Couple this with the pervasive and long standing gap in the awarding of First and 2:1 degrees between those students categorised as BME and their white counterparts, which can be seen year on year in the statistical reports produced by the Equality Challenge Unit.

It becomes very evident that students categorised as BME can have a very different experience in Universities that their white counterparts.


At the University of Wolverhampton, we have been working hard to ensure that all students have the opportunity of an equitable higher education experience.

Our Vice Chancellor, Professor Geoff Layer, has spoken out in the press about how the University of Wolverhampton recruits over 45% of its student body from BME backgrounds, which is above the percentage of people from minority background in the local communities and approximately 20% above the national average recruitment in other Universities.

The University has a mission statement that revolves around opportunity and therefore has invested in a number of research programmes to generate a better understand the success factors that enhance students’ potential to achieve and to reduce degree outcome differentials.


Nationally there may be a difference in degree outcomes between ethnicity groups, but the University of Wolverhampton is working hard to do something about it. This work includes:

· the Disparities in Student Attainment Project (DiSA) which identified four areas that influence student success: the quality of learning relationships, pedagogy and academic issues, psycho-social influences and social and cultural capital.

· the What Works Programme, this has evaluated the implementation of an inclusive assessment process that has increased student success, positively impacted on students’ sense of belonging and has reduced course level attainment gaps.

· A University-wide Belongingness Study that has explored how students connect to their educational environment and how this impacts on their success and their experience.

· An HEA Strategic Enhancement Project (Retention & Success), that examined the role of place and space in the development of student’s sense of belonging.

· Pre-expectations of Higher Educations: a study which looked at what pre-induction students expected of their University education and compared these expectations to those of University lectures. This comparison suggests that there are 10 gaps in the expectations of new students and those who teach them.

· The Vice Chancellor’s Strategic Enhancement Awards – one of which considers how we can reduce our attainment gap by a further 5% in two years.

As a result of this research, the University is making a number of evidenced based developments to strategy and in turn to its academic practice which will ensure that all students at the University of Wolverhampton have every opportunity to be successful, get a good degree and be a well-adjusted and productive member of the future workforce.

Further information on enhancing the student success and reducing degree outcome differential can also be found in Steventon, G., Cureton, D. and Clouder, L. (eds) (2016) Student Attainment in Higher Education: Issues, controversies and debates, Abingdon: Routledge .

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