The UCL BAME Awarding Gap Conference: 5 Years On, took place a month ago at the Institute of Education. Students, academics and professional services staff from across UCL attended the conference. Its aim was to highlight the progress made in the last five years in addressing the disparities in outcomes and experiences of undergraduate Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and White students in line with UCL’s Access and Participation Plan. Alongside highlighting key achievements, outcomes and learnings, the conference looked at how UCL will continue to work towards closing other awarding gaps, such as the number of first and upper-second class degrees achieved in the future. The conference also included a keynote speech from cultural historian and British Black Studies lecturer Sofia Akel, as well as several presentations from academics and practitioners.
"UCL’s awarding gap has dropped significantly. During the pandemic, this dropped as low as 0.4%"Over the years, UCL’s awarding gap has dropped significantly. During the pandemic, this dropped as low as 0.4%, with mixed assessments creating a major difference. However, these figures simply provide an average metric - they do not capture the individual experiences across faculties. But it’s not just raw student marks that formed the focus of the conference. It also highlighted that other factors play an important role - a poor student experience for example, can result in awarding gaps. Focusing on addressing this aim in particular, the BAME Awarding Gap Project worked to recognise and ensure that students were and continue to be important stakeholders in reducing inequality in educational attainment. The Student Curriculum Partners Scheme (SPSC), and the launch of the Student Success Team at the start of this academic year form two such initiatives that aim to prioritise and ensure the importance of the student voice by working with multiple underrepresented student groups at UCL.
"The Student Curriculum Partners Scheme offers students an opportunity to share their perspectives on the inclusivity of modules"The Student Curriculum Partners Scheme offers students an opportunity to share their perspectives on the inclusivity of modules to academic and Student Success staff. Student feedback on content reading lists, mode of delivery and assessments are then discussed with module leaders, following which agreed changes are implemented. There were 258 student reviewers during the 2022/23 academic year, rising from 47 reviewers at the inception of the BAME AG project in 2017/18. This covered 43 modules across eight faculties which were reviewed.
"behavioral and cultural change is also a bottom-up process, with the empathy of academic staff towards students playing a major role"However, it has been challenging for the project to recruit modules to take part in this review. The project also found some resistance from STEM staff. For many, curriculum changes could lead to the loss of scientific "objectivity" in their respective modules. However, Dr Julie Evans, project co-lead and a faculty tutor in Brain Sciences, challenged this by saying that science isn’t as ’objective’ as we think, and STEM modules deserve as much scrutiny from students to make the curriculum more inclusive. She reiterated that just like the project’s main goal, the aim is to enforce both behavioral and cultural change.
"Data can help empower module leaders, who may be resistant to making changes in the curriculum," said Professor Parama Chaudhury, project co-lead and Pro-Vice Provost (Education - Student Academic Experience).
One of the main insights from the conference was that this behavioral and cultural change is also a bottom-up process, with the empathy of academic staff towards students playing a major role. Mr Haydn Kirnon, a teaching fellow in Spanish Translation Studies from School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS) is one such rockstar - having featured as Runner Up in the Student Choice Awards 2022. From a Black Caribbean background, he attributed generational thinking to be a reason why he never challenged the status quo back when he was a student. But when he became a professor, he saw first-hand the importance of having an open dialogue with his students.
The formation of the UCL Student Success Team in January 2023 was also another method through which the project aimed to aid in behavioural and cultural change. Headed by Paulette Williams, the previous BAME Awarding Gap Project co-lead, this team functions in line with UCL’s Access and Participation Plan and extends support to not just BAME students but also priority groups - including disabled, mature, care-experienced, forced migrant and estranged students to ensure that these under-represented groups benefit from their intervention.
"If you enter via a contextual or Access UCL offer, you’re statistically less likely to receive a First or a 2.1""The data suggests they also have awarding gaps," said Rebecca Surin, the Student Success Manager. "If you enter via a contextual or Access UCL offer, you’re statistically less likely to receive a First or a 2.1. Whether you achieved the standard entry or not, you’re still less likely (to graduate with a First or 2.1)." Tackling awarding gaps is also part of their job. "We do a lot of departmental outreach work, run briefings for departments, and also organise a speaker series for students and staff," said Ms Surin. These events are in their pilot phase now, with the project going "full throttle" next academic year.
The establishment of the Student Success Team isn’t the only highlight of the 2022/23 academic year. Professor Kathy Armour, who officially opened the conference, highlighted the extensive work around the UCL Strategic Plan , including the enabling projects focusing on our education provision, which are aimed at directly supporting and facilitating key education initiatives such as the work on the BAME awarding gap. This year has also seen the laying out of UCL’s new educational strategy via the Strategic Education Projects 2022-27, which consists of four educational projects. This includes the UCL Educational Framework for the Future, with its forward-looking plans for students graduating in the 2030s, the Institute of Higher Education, Development & Support (HEDS) to support a conducive environment for innovative teaching and assessment practices which forms part of the agenda under the new Programme Architecture, and finally a Student Life Strategy to enable a holistic experience for students by integrating co-curricular activities within the mainstream curriculum.
"The BAME awarding gap focuses on undergraduate students, but we’re a very postgraduate university as well, so it’ll reach everyone in the end"With these developments, the BAME project can also find incentives to expand. "The BAME awarding gap focuses on undergraduate students, but we’re a very postgraduate university as well, so it’ll reach everyone in the end," said Professor Chaudhury.
With these new strategies, it is hopeful to see a plan in place to solve structural problems within UCL and ensure that all students can benefit and achieve their full potential.
About the authorKarthik Vinod is an aspiring science journalist, with bylines in media publications on physics, history of science, mental health and more. He has a background in astrophysics, having done an integrated master’s degree at the University of Manchester. He is part of the inaugural cohort of the Student Journalism Scheme.
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