Addressing inequalities experienced by BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students

What is the issue?

In the year 18/19 there is a 21% attainment gap in UCA between White students and BAME students (meaning that 21% fewer BAME students receive a degree award of a First of Upper Second Class / 2.1 degree). There is also a 6% gap between the number of white students and the number of BAME students in the category of ‘highly skilled employment’ (as measured by the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education Survey 2016/17).

‘Art education theorists have … described art education as Eurocentric, racist and imperialist and have called for curriculum reform and social change.’  (Hatton, 2015:3)

‘The diminishment of “social justice” in many university strategic plans by the enlargement of ‘internationalization’ agendas is testimony to the dissonance that exists between the principles of open access and the realities of institutional privilege.’ (Shilliam, 2014)

What can we do?

UCA has created a manifesto pledging to respond to this. Some key pointers from this manifesto include:

Having frequent and meaningful contact and conversations with BAME students is a proven factor in narrowing the attainment gap: do not let non-attendance go without checking in with a student, try to avoid optional sign-up tutorials becoming a norm as those from less advantaged groups will slip through the cracks of your attention.

Formative assessment (work-in-progress crits, draft feedback, explicit feedback on ways to improve work linked explicitly to assessment criteria) benefits lower achieving students most, so is a proven way of narrowing the gap between different levels of performance.  Prioritise understanding students’ creative Intent. Try to understand how students conceptualise good work and ask them what they think of their own work to begin feedback conversations. Frequent meaningful formative assessment benefits all students BUT it benefits lower achieving students more than higher achieving students. This makes it a valuable tool for addressing differences in attainment. 

Address your course material and identify where interventions can be made to increase the range of work that is shown with global perspectives, not just focussing on ‘white-as-default’. As an example: make sure that every Unit contains a bibliography that meaningfully and substantially addresses work from a global perspective. For any lecture or seminar be attentive to the range of work that is shown or discussed and in what order. Be explicit about this across a range of teaching situations and do not silo off questions of diversity or racial difference in representation into one session at the end of a series. This can be done to highlight work that has rarely been seen or to discuss structural inequality, but more importantly the examples shown should be those that are offered to all students as works to which they should achieve (not works presented solely within the frame or category of race or as a token example).

Where possible address staffing: Curricula tend to accord with the social and cultural backgrounds of academics – addressing the balance of ethnic backgrounds and expertise in your course team and course content and materials can help narrow the attainment gap. Be attentive to this with new appointments and with sessional staff and visiting lecturers. There is huge impact in terms of student experience and the diversity of staff they come into contact with (and with whom they can have frequent and meaningful conversations).

  • Where the course team is not reflective of the ethnic diversity of the student body, efforts can be made to attract a more ethnically diverse staff, for example by advertising positions on forums aimed at addressing ethnic diversity in the creative industries, e.g
  • Guest speakers and industry professionals from ‘non-white’ backgrounds can be selected as short-term measures to address a lack of ethnic diversity.

What else can we do?

Decolonise our curriculum

‘What is glaringly missing in the institutions of art and art teaching is a mainstream history that recognises how the world of Asian, African Caribbean and African artists has contributed to that history.’ (Appignanesi, 2010)

One of the key actions that can and should be addressed is the decolonisation of the curriculum. This is to ensure that the curriculum does not assume that ‘white’ is the default setting of the University and the teaching and learning situations within it. Fifty years ago the default setting would have been White-Male = normal. Whilst this default setting has been challenged there is work to do on expanding the curriculum to incorporate global perspectives.

This is a slow and interminable job, but one that will enrich all student experience and deepen our professional understanding of our disciplines. Think of this as an intensification of the curriculum that examines our blind-spots and that reaches out to incorporate a range of different experiences (and discipline positions).

‘Many curricula are designed and constructed in accordance with the social and cultural backgrounds of academics, and often drawing on their experience of HE in a context that differs in important ways from that of today… efforts to disrupt this pattern are underway though nascent.’ (HEFCE, 2015)

An example: Christina Sharpe has written of Black experience as governed by the wake – as the wake of the ships of the Middle Passage, and the action of remembering the dead and the ancestor. Think of how this wake operates in the classroom: which ancestors are being remembered, what varying relations to the past and present are being made possible by the material being addressed?

Remember to:

  • Create more diverse reading lists and key visual references;
  • See a diverse curriculum as integral to all students learning, not as an optional add-on for BAME students.
  • Engage Student Union BAME liberation groups to explore opportunities for co-creating curricula.
  • Ensure that all students have equal access to tutors without having to identify as needing help.

‘Where securing access to tutors is left to students, it is likely that under-represented groups will be disadvantaged.’ (Stevenson, 2012b, in HEFCE, 2015:35)

Refuse ‘Colour-Blind’ Racism

An important aspect to address is the notion of colour-blind racism. Whilst our curriculum may not be actively racist, in refusing to articulate the weight of histories of difference within a curriculum there is a shutting down and shutting out of histories of students of colour which can only lead to disinvestment in learning. Afua Hirsch makes these compelling points in her book Brit(-ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging: “ ‘not seeing race’ shuts down analysis of the issue. Just because one individual chooses not to ‘see race’, it doesn’t mean that the racialised nature of poverty, discrimination and prejudice in society at large disappears. That individual is simply refusing to acknowledge it.” To ‘see race’ is to be able to talk about and discuss all these different experiences… We must avoid what Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls ‘colour-blind racism’… … if we pretend to live in a “post-racial society” it is at the expense of “ever truly understanding racialised identities.”

In this regard it is important to think of decolonizing the curriculum as an active task that does not hide behind confusion or shame in regard to our lack of tools. It is important that we learn the tools to talk about these different experiences.

Some last pointers to round up

1. To be ‘colour-blind’ (rather than actively work to decolonize the curriculum) is to perpetuate racial inequality; race should be understood as a social construct that has real effects; ignoring this fact ignores the experience of your students.

2. Think of the curriculum as demonstrating a set of power relations (around who is visible and who is legible) – Understand that this has consequences for your students.

3. Developing teaching and learning situations that draw from a range of global perspectives will enrich both staff and students and is an interminable and long-term activity, not a few bolt-on sessions.

© Matthew Tizzard

Further reading:

Appignanesi, R. (ed.) (2010) Beyond Cultural Diversity: the case for creativity London: Third Text

Dixon-Smith, S. (2017) Co-researching Beyond the Category: a thematic analysis of a student-led focus group study into BME student experiences at the University for the Creative Arts Farnham: UCA

Finnigan, T. and Richards, A. (2016) Retention and Attainment in the Disciplines: Art and Design HEA

Hatton, K. (2015) Towards an Inclusive Arts Education London: IOE Press
HEFCE (2015) Causes of Differences in Student Outcomes HEFCE

Shilliam, R. (2014) ‘Black Academia in Britain’ (accessed 17.07.18)

Stevenson, J. (2012) ‘An exploration of the link between minority ethnic and white students’ degree attainment and view of their future “possible selves”’ in Higher Education Studies 2:4, pp.103-113

For more information on ongoing initiatives in these areas at UCA, please see the Creative Education Network webpage

See also: