International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
Home > Stevenson

The BME degree attainment gap: The black hole of institutional delusion?

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, Dr Iain Garner Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University


In this paper we build on Monica McLean's thought-provoking think piece to explore the ways in which (many) Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students are being denied access to socially powerful knowledge (Young, 2008), that is knowledge which 'is powerful because of the access it provides to the natural and social worlds and to society’s conversation about what it should be like’ (Wheelahan 2010: 10). In the first part of the paper we draw attention to how BME students enter and succeed in HE in very different ways to their white peers: in particular they are significantly more likely to be studying in lower ranking universities and significantly less likely to be attending higher ranking universities; they are also significantly less likely to gain a first or upper second class degree than their white peers who enter HE from similar backgrounds and with equivalent entry qualifications. We argue that these inequalities result in many BME students having inequitable access to powerful knowledge. In the second part of the paper we describe institutional responses to the degree attainment gap including ways in which senior managers are taking, or avoiding taking, robust action to effect change. We focus in particular on 'blind' marking, the implementation of compulsory 'unconscious bias' training, as well as the ways in which images of BME students are over-used in institutional marketing. We use these strategies to explore close up how institutions may be misplacing their trust in the possibilities afforded by equality initiatives, allowing a level of institutional self-delusion to persist - that change is taking place - and so preventing wider and much needed action from being either conceived or implemented. Finally we return to our argument that the manifest inequalities in the UK higher education system has significant implications for social justice and, potentially, for democracy. We therefore conclude by suggesting that only by examining issues of social justice close up, in particular how institutions are positioning themselves in relation to social injustices, can these same institutions start to develop and implement strategies that will really make a difference.


Black and Minority Ethnic; degree attainment; powerful knowledge; inequalities

Link to Full Paper (If submitted)


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

| About HECU8 | Conference Programme | Registration | Call for Proposals |Keynote Presenters |Previous Conference Papers | Contact |
SRHE Department of Educational Research Lancaster University