Too often the higher education story of black and other under-represented students is perennially one of under-performance, lack of ambition, engagement and attainment writ large by data. LITE Fellow Dr Iwi Ugiagbe-Green outlines her project here and asks whether we are using the right language to frame the discussion, and how harnessing the student voice is imperative to progress.
My commissioned LITE Fellowship provides me with an amazing opportunity to engage in educational research that I feel and know is important.
This project will be a real challenge to deliver over three years, kept honest by institutionally-set targets, that aim to make a real difference to the experiences and success of ethnically minoritised students here at University of Leeds.
According to the Advance HE, staff and students annual statistics 2020, the sector level awarding gap between white students and black students is 22.6% points.
If the current rate of progress continues, this gap won’t close until academic year 2085-86.
But more of that later.
This opportunity, however, comes at a hugely emotive, disruptive, turbulent and reflective time for me, and others, working hard to cope with the impact of the global pandemic on our day-to-day lives.
Of course, so much has happened since the start of the year in January when I was very surprisingly asked to give my first TEDx.
I chose a theme that I was hugely important to me and gave the 18 mins talk: ‘Let’s talk about being black in the academy.’
I reflected on my career to date as an academic, the interplay of race and identity in carving out a career in higher education.
Also the responsibility that I have in inspiring and supporting other black students in the academy, working to achieve their aspirations.
The title of my TEDx was inspired by #Talkaboutblack, which was pioneered by Gavin Lewis, Managing Director, UK, LGPS, at Black Rock.
This is one of the world’s pre-eminent asset management firms and a premier provider of investment management.
The hashtag, #Talkaboutblack is a movement dedicated to increasing the representation of black professionals in the Asset Management industry.
Gavin Lewis has been open about his struggles with racism when entering spaces that are not meant for ‘people like him’, his identity as a result of having no father from the age of four, and ‘the shocked looks on people’s faces when they realise Gavin Lewis is in fact a black man’.
I am not a senior leader but I like to think I have done relatively well in my career to date.
As I think about my working class up-bringing, about often being the only black woman at different education events, accountancy in my respect, or the expressed surprise of people who see my name and then hear me speak, I note that there are many parallels with the experiences of Gavin Lewis.
Experience impacts achievement
It is important to note that the experiences of black people in these spaces; the academy, professions and wider society is not homogeneous, as Gavin Lewis, said: “It is as rich and diverse as the shades of our skin.”.
What is clear, is that the experiences of our ethnically minoritized students within the academy, are impacting on their ability to thrive, to be their best self and to achieve their potential.
This is made stark by the various gaps we see impacting on these groups as they move through the academy; the awarding gap, the achievement gap, the employment gap, the pay gap.
Time to redefine
Now, my reference to ethnically minoritized students acknowledges that whiteness is centred as ‘the norm’ in the academy, so that anything that is non-white, is minoritised, so much so, we have a ubiquitous term for it: ‘BAME’ – Black and Minority Ethnic.
Let me be clear about this, there is no such thing as a ‘BAME’ student or a ‘BAME’ member of staff.
There, I have said it. BAME is a term that was coined by people for whom the term does not relate and is used in official higher education policy, data, reports and statistical returns.
It is heartening to note that there are important and inclusive conversations going on in the University in which this reductive term of ‘BAME’ is being acknowledged as problematic and is being de-constructed.
Some of these events are student-led, such as the recent: ‘The Language in Equality and Inclusion: The Perspective of Students’.
An event in which students speak about the impact that othering, and lack of representation within the academy, has on them as individuals, their student experience, and their sense of belonging.
Some of you reading this may think, ‘what’s the issue?’
Surely, it’s just a way of categorising non-white staff and students and we need to do it somehow for data collection, analysis etc.
It is of course a useful term to shine a light on the inequalities that exist between white and non-white groups and is unifying in that sense.
However, there is a central issue, which is one of power and control.
BAME as a collective term is so problematic, not least from a data perspective.
The complexity and specificity of issues relating to a wide range of different ethnic groups is lost by just aggregating non-white groups together.
Poor quality data and information leads to poor, ineffective decision-making.
Effective ‘targeted interventions’, in other words, ‘personalised, data-informed, evidence based strategies of support for different student groups, in different contexts, have less chance of being effective if the data does not give an accurate context on which those decisions are to be made.
There is an unpalatable irony in othering non-white ethnic groups, then suggesting to those very groups; the very people for whom it is used to describe and wish for it to be changed, that finding an alternative to a term not chosen by them would be ‘problematic.’
The persistent use of ‘BAME’ in policy conversations, curricula and other formal education spaces, in positioning and framing descriptions of ethnically minoritized staff and students’ experiences, is one that further disenfranchises and erodes a sense of belonging within the academy.
Identity has emerged as a critical issue from the research that I have been undertaking with students, particularly in exploring experiences during their student journey and transition into the graduate labour market.
The shaping of students’ identity is complex, but one’s sense of self, belief, confidence undoubtedly impacts on one’s success.
Students are not absolved of responsibility in the pursuit of success, but we have to create a community in which structures of opportunity are opened up and equality of opportunity exists for all.
Sense of belonging
We are, even unwittingly, creating spaces in which some students do not feel that they belong.
Spaces where they feel that they cannot be their authentic self and are othered.
Spaces where they are not represented by the academics who teach and research with them.
Spaces in which they are feel that they are not understood.
Spaces in which they do not see other students like them being celebrated for being successful based on their authentic self.
As a result, some of our students are not achieving their potential.
‘You cannot be, what you cannot see.’, as said celebrated American activist for children’s rights, Marian Wright Edelman.
I want to ensure that our ‘BAME’ students are seen, that they achieve their potential whilst they are with us, and do not experience inequity of life opportunities and choices that may result due to not ‘succeeding’ at University.
Harnessing the student voice and engaging students inclusively, actively and continuously with this project is going to be critical to its success.
Making a difference
So, what is the central issue at the heart of this Fellowship project?
Institutional data aggregated at the ‘BAME’ level, reports an institutional ‘BAME’ awarding gap here at Leeds, between 2013/14 and 2017/2018 has risen from 11.6% to 12.7% with a three-year trend of this gap widening.
Although aggregation of ethnic groupings into ‘BAME’ masks larger disparities in attainment, impacting on black students in particular: the gap between Black and White students was 28.9% in 2017/2018, a mean average of 25.9%.
Whereas, the gap between Asian and White students was 16.6% in 2017/2018 , a 13.3% mean average gap.
The reasons for these gaps are complex but with this exciting three-year LITE Fellowship, I aim to make a difference and work towards closing these unacceptable degree awarding outcomes.