New Research: Mind the Gap: Choice, opportunity and access in Higher Education for UK-domiciled BAME students

Since 2018, ROTA has been researching student choice and disadvantage in Higher Education with reference to UK domiciled BAME students. In May 2019, the Augar Review of Higher Education was published. ROTA’s full report, containing a Commentary on the Augar Review.

In response to the Augar Review, ROTA is concerned that:

Reducing the fee level to £7,500 is unlikely to be a major influencer of student choice. Lowering fees is not the whole picture in the student decision-making process. Students make choices based on other factors:  location of university, suitability of course, what the student experience is like, social life, where to live and type of accommodation.

Additional costs for students once they arrive at university can lead to financial hardship. Additional costs may not be fully factored in. These can include equipment, studio fees, additional accommodation charges and other hidden costs, adding to the burden of debt. Working in exploitative and/or low-paid jobs whilst studying can result in high levels of stress, sometimes leading to mental health problems. Black male students are among the group the least likely to divulge such problems. Universities should be more alert to this and adapt their support services accordingly.

Restoring means-tested grants and loans does not in itself address BAME under-representation. There is a lack of government support to address financial inequality; a failure of schools to engage with BAME students’ aspirations, with low expectations perpetuated; discrimination; gender bias against Black boys; a lack of peer mentoring; few Black role models; a lack of awareness of Widening Participation and similar schemes. Furthermore, there is a case for investigating whether students on means-tested grants would be subject to obligations - to do paid work, for example as in some American universities - which other students would not be expected to do and how this would be perceived by students themselves.

Additional loans for students on vocational courses risks exacerbating racist and classist attitudes. There is an underlying assumption, and not just in the Augar Review, that students from working class backgrounds are more likely to gravitate towards vocational training post-18. The Augar Review suggests that such students might be encouraged to do so through making additional loans available for vocational courses. There may be an economic/labour force argument for this, but ROTA believes that such a policy risks exacerbating racist and classist attitudes.  ROTA can be confident in asserting that not all working class students have ‘low aspirations’ or need support to challenge stereotypes.  This is true of a number of students - some White, some BAME - with parents in traditionally working-class occupations, who have high expectations of a university education which match those of students from other backgrounds. This issue is explored further in ROTA’s full report.

Access and Participation plans fail in their detail of what is ‘sufficient’ and ‘additional’ support for students. This is partly because consultation is lacking with students, particularly BAME students, and with student representative organisations, about what kind of support they need.

Low prior attainment is linked with dropping out of university. ROTA suggests that this is part of a longstanding problem with universities and schools not working closely enough together to raise attainment and support some BAME students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Revising the minimum level entry requirements to university might stop ‘grade inflation’. It might, however, have adverse consequences: students who did not achieve the recommended minimum three D-grades at A-level could be denied the opportunity of a university education, being re-directed to vocational courses. Others, who achieved the minimum grades could be accepted on to university courses which they cannot keep up with academically.

‘Contextualising’ applications is a way of combating disadvantage. Measures to ‘contextualise’ university applications for socio-economic background of candidates might not be sufficient to address disadvantage, especially if these measures are too narrowly defined.

Differentiated course fees.  ROTA would like to point out that introducing differentiated course fees, the subject of much speculation, has been rejected by the Augar Review – for now. However, we will continue to monitor developments and consider the effect that differentiated course fees would have on BAME student choice, opportunity and access to Higher Education.

Listen to our volunteer Sasha McKoy on Devon Daley's show BBC Derby HERE. The piece on university starts at 15 minutes into the show.

Full report now available HERE.