We have another great guest post by Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!
The Financial Times recently published an analysis of data from HESA (the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency) which revealed a troubling trend in UK universities. As the analysis’s headline read: ‘Non-EU international students at UK universities less likely to get top grades’. The data was clear – undergraduates from outside the EU were twice as likely as UK students to receive a lower-second or third-class degree in 2021-22 (and therefore missing out on the upper-second or first-class degrees that employers most favour).
This trend is especially concerning given the significant growth in the number of non-EU international students studying at UK universities in recent years, with almost three times as many studying in the UK today than in 2007. With these students making up a larger proportion of those within our classrooms, there is a need to ensure that universities are not providing them with a second-class education.
The problem with awarding gaps is not, however, limited to the difference in degree outcomes between non-EU international students and EU and “home” students. There is a wealth of data already covering racialised awarding gaps, socio-economic awarding gaps, and disability awarding gaps, for example.
The question is – what can be done to help challenge these trends?
I work at an institution which has the ambition of ‘eradicating’ awarding gaps by 2030. This has given those working on teaching and learning a serious opportunity to engage with the issue, to understand the challenges, and to make some early steps to address those gaps.
Of course, there are many factors that shape awarding outcomes where we have limited power to respond. Structural issues will often be the deciding factor on, for instance, whether students will have to take on part-time work to fill the increasing gulf between the costs of student life and the student loans provided.
This is not a niche issue, over half of undergraduates in the UK are now in part-time employment. Some universities are already experimenting with compacting students’ timetables so classes only cover three days of the week. This gives students clear days for paid work and, hopefully, ensures that they don’t miss any teaching. This compartmentalisation of the week might also be of benefit to academics by providing set days for research, writing, and tackling that ever-growing pile of emails.
However, there are also opportunities for individual, course-level initiatives to achieve the ambition of combatting awarding gaps.
The first opportunity is to reflect on how we are assessing our students. In particular, optionality could be one particularly effective path forward. Letting students select from a range of assessment formats, tailored for respective modules, would allow students the choice of assessment to best suit their learning style and the skills that they are seeking to develop through their studies. A recent report on optionality in assessment highlighted its potential to limit awarding gaps, making the recommendation that ‘Educational institutions should prioritise the introduction of diverse assessment formats to explicitly address accessibility and concerns about fairness, ensuring access to necessary resources and skills development to prevent the unintentional widening of awarding gaps’.
The second opportunity is to take the time to consider the range of cultures and approaches to learning that are present in our increasingly diverse classrooms, and to engage students on these matters. It is easy to take for granted that the approaches to teaching and learning that have been taught or socialised to us are in some way the ‘standard’ but this is a practice that risks alienating some students.
For example, research on students from China’s learning styles has highlighted that they often do not have experience in or enjoy some of the norms of active learning that are the mark of much of the teaching and learning in Western institutions. Therefore, engaging all students at the start of courses about the hows and whys of the approaches to learning that will be utilised will provide at least some shared understanding of the expectations and benefits of getting involved in seminar discussions.
Finally, taking the opportunity to support students’ confidence in engaging with learning should never be missed. Learning students’ names; encouraging students to interact and learn with each other outside of the classroom; giving students the chance to speak individually (ending teaching sessions a few minutes early but sticking around can give students the chance to ask questions that they might be self-conscious about asking in front of a group) – these are all relatively easy ways to try and give students more confidence in themselves, as well as the learning process. This, in turn, has the potential for increasing engagement and attainment.
In sum, these above suggestions boil down to one simple but key idea – that we should find space for empathy in our teaching. Certainly, there are a host of other pathways to begin combatting awarding gaps. Whilst sector- and institution-level data is vital in identifying problematic trends, it will take a more granular approach to understand the specific, course-level issues and responses. This is a big issue but it is also one that academics can begin engaging with and combatting by instituting small changes.