Degrees of Racism: Attainment Gap Report Summary
The BME Attainment Gap project was conducted as studies show that there has been a gap between the degree attainment of white and BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) undergraduates at SOAS, with a greater proportion of white students attaining either a 2:1 or first class degree. These gaps cannot be attributed to differences between students at entry at SOAS, thus suggesting factors within SOAS contributing to this finding. The gap is not attributable to a deficit in BME students: any intervention must target institutional factors and not BME students themselves.
The Students’ Union project, of which this report is the final output, investigated institutional factors contributing to the ethnicity attainment gap (as the largest persisting gap already known to exist), and ways to address these factors, based on students’ lived experiences. It was designed to complement the Widening Participation project, which analysed data on student entry, study characteristics and exams to identify (more comprehensively and in more detail than has been done to date) where gaps exist, and to quantify them. This project recognises that while quantitative data are invaluable for diagnosing the precise locations and sizes of gaps, alone they cannot reveal students’ experiences of practices, attitudes, behaviours and systems that create these gaps, or how such experiences are shaped by students’ histories and interests. There is a need also to consider how these issues are framed. Together the two projects provide a baseline from which the School can design, plan and implement a strategy to address institutional factors affecting student outcomes.
The research found that BME students’ confidence, motivation and engagement are often negatively affected by racial exclusion and discrimination in the learning and teaching environment at SOAS. Barriers to accessing academic and welfare support, and barriers to accountability both reduced the opportunity to regain confidence and motivation.
Racial exclusion operated through the centring of white perspectives in the curriculum and in class discussions, the overrepresentation of white people among staff and students on some courses, biased assessment practices, and racism by staff and students. These conditions also appeared to produce or reinforce teachers' lower expectations of their BME students.
Barriers to support included having to ask proactively for help (which excluded students’ whose confidence had been undermined by racial exclusion and discrimination), the underrepresentation of BME staff relative to students, unclear roles and remits, staff being overstretched, some teachers’ lack of understanding of mental health issues, bureaucratic hurdles, stigma (arising from the outsourcing of core study skills to extra curricular services), and lack of awareness of the forms of support available.
Barriers to accountability included the repeated failure to respond to complaints effectively, transparently or systemically; failure of the institution and individuals to admit to racism and, among a significant minority of white students and staff, refusal to accept that attainment gaps are structural, preferring instead to blame BME students.
It is perhaps because SOAS distinguishes itself from other UK universities as a place of critical learning and research that so far it has not confronted this institutional racism systemically. The effective failure to foster a learning and teaching environment conducive to the academic success of all students amounts to institutional racism.
Given its colonial legacy and its research and teaching specialisms, the School arguably has even greater responsibility to address issues of racism, but also a wealth of relevant skills and expertise.
Part One: A racist teaching and learning environment
If SOAS by design predominantly studies people of colour in Asia and Africa, the question of who is doing the studying – which writers and thinkers, lecturers and students – becomes pivotal to shaping the relations of power. It was clear from the experiences shared by BME participants in the survey and focus groups that when one or more of these three (authors on reading lists, teachers, and students dominating class discussions) were predominantly white, it sent an implicit message as to whose perspectives mattered, and whom the course was for. In these cases these students had felt excluded by design. For some this was because the readiest object of identification was the racialised object of study – an experience their white peers did not share, others conveyed a similar sense of exclusion-by-design in the perception that the teaching wasn’t aimed at them but at their white peers, for many, the centring of white perspectives had negatively affected academic motivation and engagement.
The “white curriculum”
More BME participants highlighted the impact of the ‘whiteness’ of the curriculum than that of any other aspect of learning and teaching. (This was followed closely by comments on the underrepresentation of people of colour and ethnic minorities among teaching staff, relative to the student body.) The underrepresentation of people of colour (and to a lesser extent, women) in course reading lists was a prominent concern, and especially that of Black scholars, both of the African continent and diaspora. Some also highlighted the overrepresentation of male authors. The lack of diversity in reading lists felt “othering”, “alienating” and “erasing” for a number of students, and for some it was difficult to relate to the perspectives centred. This had led some students to expect that, were they to contribute non-eurocentric perspectives and experiences, these would be less valued.
BME staff and Black student underrepresentation
This message was further reinforced for many by the underrepresentation of people of colour – most notably Black people, and Black women especially – among the teaching staff relative to the student body, or as one participant described it, “white teachers teaching white students about black/brown people.” Underrepresentation was a recurring theme throughout the research and made many students feel isolated. Students connected this to their mental health, their ability to engage with their studies, and their motivation to continue. Some had become frustrated and cynical towards the School because the demographics of staff visible to them on open days and in marketing had turned out not to be representative. When students feel disillusioned with the School, they are disinclined to identify with it, which in turn is likely to affect engagement and motivation. This should be concerning for attainment, given that it is likely to be difficult, experientially, to remain engaged with a course while disengaged from the course provider.
Exclusion from classroom discussions
A great many BME participants shared experiences of seminar discussions being dominated by white students, and of the effects on their confidence to participate. BME female students often spoke of discussions being dominated or “shut down” by white, male students, which sometimes made them feel “uncomfortable”, “intimidated” or “threatened”. A few said that when they contributed their own perspectives to class discussion, their white, male peers “belittled” and “stigmatised” them for seeming “aggressive” or “annoying”, building on racist, sexist expectations of men-of-colour (and especially Black men) as aggressive, and women-of-colour as submissive. This caused “stress and anxiety” for some female, BME students, reducing their opportunity to participate, and their confidence and motivation. Having white students’ voices dominate was especially frustrating when the discussion was about the political or theoretical interventions of people of colour, or about racist violence. Sometimes it was the way in which white students discussed these topics, for example trivialising their significance or presuming to be an expert, which excluded some BME students from participating.
Some BME students felt silenced also by the pressure to communicate using academic language that – for reasons of structural racism – was closer to the everyday speech of middle-class, white students than to their own. One BME student reported having their accent “corrected”. Another said they had peers who expected to be perceived as less intelligent on the basis of racist, classist stereotypes, and some felt their choice was between adopting the language of their white, middle-class peers or not speaking at all.
Tutors were seen to play a critical role in shaping the dynamics of class discussions, as a function of both their responsibility as discussion facilitators and of their perceived authority in the classroom. Sometimes they passively enabled white students to dismiss others’ experiences by neglecting to intervene. Some participants attributed this to their tutors perhaps feeling obliged to maintain what might appear to be freedom of speech. Whether this was the reason or not, the consequence of not intervening was that BME students remained effectively censored. Another way in which some white tutors were seen to sustain the dominance of white students was by maintaining an apparently objective stance to topics to do with racist violence such as slavery and colonialism. The effect of acting out the privilege of being able to be objective as a white person was to alienate students whose families and communities (or who themselves) had been on the receiving end of the violence.
In a similar vein, white teachers and students weren’t always thought to have recognised the emotional impact for some Black students of discussing racist and colonial violence in an abstract way, without also sufficiently emphasising its material reality.
Racism in the classroom:
A worrying number of students reported having experienced explicitly racist comments and behaviours in class, both from other students and from teachers. Racist comments took the form of generalisations made about races, religions and regions, and comments that legitimised colonialism.
There is a clear need to raise awareness of the forms that racism by both staff and students take on campus and in the classroom, and to give all staff and students the skills to intervene in problematic behaviour, and to react constructively to being ‘called out’.
Recommendation: Design a campaign and deliver to raise awareness of racism by both staff and students on campus and in the classroom. It should include:
- How to recognise racism in speech and behaviour (with examples of the forms it may take);
- A clear message that behaviours and comments are racist because of their impact, not their intention;
- How to react constructively to being ‘called out’ for racism, by listening, being non-defensive, and being committed to learning and changing.
Racism in assessment:
A number of BME students perceived that their teachers had lower expectations of them because of racist stereotypes of people of colour as less capable or lazy, and that these teachers therefore made less effort to help them. Some suggested this was perpetuated by having less opportunity to participate in class discussions.
This was confirmed by the experiences of a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) who asked to be interviewed for this research project after second-marking students’ papers with a course convenor and witnessing the convenor’s clear bias against Black students. The GTA and convenor had each read the essays and independently noted a mark or range of marks they felt the essay deserved, and then compared these to agree on a final mark. For most it was straightforward: if they had awarded significantly different marks they would briefly state their case and agree on a final mark. Only in respect to the two Black students’ essays did the convenor go into detail about why their marks should be lower, making criticisms about grammar, sentence structure and content that the GTA felt were unjustified. The GTA felt that the convenor’s criticisms of the students’ grammar and language had been illegitimate both in that they were unwarranted and in that they were irrelevant to the marking criteria:
Due to the difference in power, arising from her comparatively lower status in the professional hierarchy and the lower level of infrastructural support for fractional staff, the GTA had not felt able to confront the course convenor directly about their unconscious bias. The lack of a culture (and supporting infrastructure) in which staff at all levels, including fractional staff, are able to call out racism, and individuals’ lack of recognition of their own racism, perpetuates the problem.
All academics must be prepared to acknowledge that, no matter their research specialism, they are capable of racism, and should be prepared to discuss how.
For all staff to feel able to confront each other’s racism (which in turn would create a safer and more inclusive environment for BME students) without fear of negative repercussions, all staff need job security and to feel meaningfully supported and valued by the institution. Strengthen the job security and working conditions of fractional staff and cleaners in accordance with the demands of their campaigns.
International students also raised the issue of exam and essay questions sometimes containing UK-centric cultural assumptions. Their examples have not been included here to preserve participants’ anonymity. The unintended impact was to “throw off students who are not culturally/contextually aware”, and prejudice students who “might have different ways of approaching [the] question due to [their] different background.”
Recommendation: Introduce mandatory unconscious bias workshops for all assessors and staff on recruitment or promotion panels. Workshops for assessors should include (but not be limited to) training in:
- Unconscious bias in expectations of students’ potential to get a 2:1 or a first class degree; ?
- How to become aware of, and avoid (or at least make explicit), cultural bias in question setting for exams and essays.
Part 2: Barriers to support and accountability
Students must be able to access academic and welfare support as soon as problems of discrimination arise, to prevent possible longer-term or cumulative effects to their wellbeing, confidence and engagement. The research found barriers to accessing both kinds of support. The School has a responsibility to make support systems accessible to all students: the failure to do so amounts to indirect discrimination in the sense of the Equality Act.
Equally importantly, students must be able to hold the School and its members to account for racial discrimination and exclusion. The research found repeated failure by the School to deal with complaints effectively, transparently or systemically, and barriers to making them. SOAS’s reputation for being critical sometimes also appeared to act as a mask behind which the institution and individual members could avoid confronting their racism either personally or publicly. Together these undermined the potential for change.
Barriers to accessing support from lecturers and tutors
Accessing academic and welfare support relies on students having confidence to proactively approach staff. There are a number of institutional factors that negatively affect BME students’ confidence and motivation – not least the rewarding of traits more often displayed by white students and the devaluing of perspectives of people-of-colour authors and students.
While the School bears no direct responsibility for students’ experiences before arriving at SOAS, nor to allocate tutors of the same ethnicity as their students, more could be done to mitigate the effects. A handful of BME participants called emphatically for a network of mentors from BME backgrounds whom BME students could access in addition to their tutors, should they feel the need to talk to someone who may be more able to understand their experiences of racism. Again, this sometimes intersected with class:
Introduce formal BME mentoring schemes by and for BME students and for staff. Mentors should work in schools too so that SOAS can understand where its BME learners are coming from and the experiences they have had before arriving at SOAS.
Tutors should be aim to be welcoming and approachable to all students. It may help to state clearly in lectures their open-door policy during office hours, and to acknowledge in the same breath that they may not understand what students are going through, but that they are here for their students nonetheless.
Barriers to accessing mental health support
The most frequently perceived area of training need for teaching staff was in understanding and catering to the learning needs of students with mental health problems. Although relevant to students of all backgrounds, some BME participants cited anxiety and depression linked to their experiences of racism and racial discrimination; these add to the mental health risk factors shared with white students.
Lecturers and tutors didn’t always acknowledge the mental health issues students were facing, and some appeared unwilling to accommodate needs arising from them – even where these had been discussed in advance or specified in a learning agreement.
This had led some students to believe their lecturers didn’t care. Whether or not this was the case, the perception was real and contributed to the isolation of some of those most in need of support. Some pointed to institutional factors such as the lack of a mandatory requirement for learning agreements to be adhered to, and that lecturers may not access the necessary training or guidance in how to take account of learning needs when marking work.
For some students, mental health difficulties made it too difficult to jump the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to access learning agreements and other forms of support in the first place.
Ensure all teaching staff are trained to recognise, understand and accommodate the needs of students with mental health difficulties or learning difficulties, and disabled students, including how to mark in ways that take account of specific learning needs, and how to facilitate equal participation.
Make learning agreements binding.
Increase resources to Student Advice and Wellbeing, to remove all dispensable bureaucratic hurdles to accessing welfare support and to reduce waiting times.
Reccomendations from Attainment Gap research:
1: Establish leadership and strategy for eliminating the ethnicity attainment gap.
- BoGovernors to set a KPI for reducing gap + one to eliminate it altogether.
- Appoint an institutional lead to report to the director + make sure the KPI’s are met
- A broad WG collaborating with the decolonising SOAS WG
- Intercollegiate collaboration
- Ensure resources and support
- WG should be holistic, working through all stages of planning, from concept to review;
- Include an implementation plan and timeline;
- Be published on the School’s website;
- Facilitate change as opposed to being a tick-box exercise.
2: Acknowledge and address Institutional racism
- Director publicly commit to eliminating the gap by committing to address institutional racism + dismantling barriers to accessing support + develop a culture of accountability
- Make all students + staff aware (connect to critical race theory + stories of bme excellence)
- For white students + staff: it’s about impact not intentions
- Academics should be open
- Research and publish on SOAS’ colonial legacy
- Partner w institutions in global south
- Allow research on whiteness
3: Address BME underrepresentation within the staff and student body.
- Set a specific, measurable KPI target for the appointment of Black and other underrepresented BME staff to all sections of the School, including senior grades, teaching positions, counsellors and complaint-handling positions.
- Transparency on recruitment: publish why + how ppl are appointed.
- KPI on BME Working Class students in majority white courses
- Intro formal BME mentoring schemes
- Monitor and review student + staff profiles
4: Create and repair systems that support a culture of accountability.
- Develop a system of accountability for race equality across the School. A bottom-up approach
- Strengthen the job security and working conditions of fractional staff and cleaners in accordance with the demands of their campaigns.
- Undertake a full audit of SOAS’s complaints procedures, with particular attention to the handling of complaints relating to racial and gender harassment and discrimination. Address any biases or practices that may undermine accountability.
- More transparency in complaints - e.g. into a cemented time frame.
- Analyse complaints data annually
- Publish ‘value-added’ data on and detailed data on attainment gaps annually on the SOAS website, beginning with the comprehensive quantitative analysis of attainment gaps commissioned by the Widening Participation team in 2016. Data transparency is crucial for BME students to believe the gaps are being dealt with and to trust the School’s systems – and trust is crucial for confidence, and confidence crucial to attain well. This could also enable collaboration with other HEIs doing similar work, such as the University of Kent.
5: Create an inclusive learning and teaching environment.
- Address the whiteness of the curriculum, including a full-scale audit of every course reading list to review and address the representation of people of colour, scholars outside Europe and North America, and genders besides cis-male.
- Re-assess what is meant by ‘inclusive learning and teaching environement’ - decol soas group/campaign as a guide on this.
- Ensure that learning and teaching practices match the entry profile of students. NOt just something WP focus on.
- ntroduce mandatory guidance or training for all teaching staff in how to facilitate class discussions inclusively, i.e. in ways that:
- Do not exclude marginalised voices;
- Do not enable some (often white) students' comfort at the expense of others' (often BME);
- Do not treat BME students as spokespeople for regions;
- Intervene in problematic dynamics among students (such as racism and the dominance of some voices over others);
- Are sensitive to and supportive of the needs of students of all backgrounds when discussing racist violence such as slavery and colonialism.
- Ensure all teaching staff are trained to recognise, understand and accommodate the needs of students with mental health difficulties etc
- Make learning agreements binding.
- Use the findings of the School’s recent quantitative analysis of attainment gaps not just as a diagnostic tool but to identify areas of learning, teaching and assessment practices for adaptation. Design adaptations based on what has worked. Evaluate adaptations through an annual feedback mechanism.
6: Clarify and communicate existing support available.
- Research which communication channels and platforms students pay most attention to. Provide an incentive.
- Identify boundaries of existing academic and welfare service. E.g. from personal tutors to wellbeing to SU.
- Ensure students + staff in advisory/support roles are fully equipped.
- Producing a single comprehensive guide on the above stuff.
7: Dismantle barriers to accessing support.
- Tutors more welcoming. Est better communication from outset e.g. open door policy.
- Intro regular tutorials inc 1-1.
- Design realistic, substantive time into academics’ timetables to fulfil the responsibilities of being a personal tutor in a way that is supportive to tutees. E.g. get rid of those mean absent emails that are sent and replace with supportive ones.
- Increase the formal opportunities for students to support each other academically.
- Increase resources to Student Advice and Wellbeing, to remove all dispensable bureaucratic hurdles to accessing welfare support and to reduce waiting times.