Skip to content

The awarding gap is a ‘wicked’ problem

The awarding gap in higher education is a racialised issue, often referred to as the race or ethnicity gap, where students from BAME backgrounds are awarded much lower degrees compared to their white counterparts.

Data from the Office For Students report 2023 shows the degree outcome gaps decreased for all ethnicities between 2016-17 and 2020-21, but then increased between 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Full time students from minority ethnic backgrounds had lower levels of progression than white students, but this varied by ethnicity. Black students had an indicator which was 4.5 percentage points lower than white students, but the gap was much smaller for mixed ethnicity students at 0.2 percentage points.

Syra Shakir, an associate professor and racial equality activist at Leeds Trinity University, has dedicated her past four years at the university to working  with students of all different backgrounds on creating resources and carrying out research.

The aim of her most recent project is to focus on the awarding gap.

Syra said: "We want to address the awarding gap through anti-racist practise, because you can't address the awarding gap unless you have an anti racist approach and mindset in anything that you do.

"The project will collate a number of different actions and resources that can be put into place for both staff and students in order to address the awarding gap and make some headway."

At Leeds Trinity University the awarding gap was previously 13.1% on average across the university, but is now sitting at just over 10.4%.  Syra added that although there is a reduction, there is still "a lot of work to do."

Looking closely at all the different subject areas, the awarding gap is much wider than 10% in certain subject disciplines.

She said: "This isn't to do with entry qualifications or a deficit model, as in the students who are from BAME backgrounds are simply not clever enough. There is something that is categorically going wrong on that student journey and during that student experience that for some reason they are not getting a good degree at the end.

"This awarding gap is a wicked problem in all universities up and down the country and to see this level of disparity when students are working so hard and trying their upmost best to get a good degree really worries me. "

The project will involve students and staff carrying out research through interviews, focus groups, written reflections and surveys, working together and prioritising student voices in holding institutions accountable and finding a solution in closing the gap.

She added: "We can't work out any solution or any actions unless we hear that from those who are most oppressed, those who have been affected by it, and that's our students. Students who are from BAME backgrounds and indeed from white backgrounds, because this wicked issue affects all students, even though it's a racialised issue because it affects BAME students, the wickedness of it will impact all students, and the whole university."

What do you think?