The blog of the Royal Historical Society

Race Update 7 – RHS Virtual Workshop on the impact of the Covid Crisis on BME Student Admissions in Higher Education, 18 June 2020

by | Jun 22, 2020 | Race Update | 0 comments |

On the 18 June 2020, RHS hosted a Zoom discussion on predicted grades, university admissions and BME students, using History as an exemplar case. Following the government decision to cancel summer examinations, this year’s GCSE and A-Level grades will be predicted by teachers and normalised by a nationally applied formula. This has prompted debates around fears of existing structural disadvantages operating within schools and universities further discriminating against BME and under-privileged students. The event considered how the problem of structural bias in our schools and universities may negatively affect BME students in particular and potential means to mitigate these negative impacts.

The zoom workshop considered whether predicted grades would re-inscribe race inequalities in History undergraduate admissions in 2020?

RHS were joined by experts in the field, from those working in the Higher Education sector, those engaged in race equality work at the level of policy, curriculum, examination, and in the museum sector, teachers and also press as well as a Labour MP!

The panel discussion comprised of Professor Claire Alexander, who is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester and a member of the Critical In/Equalities research cluster where she works on race, ethnicity, migration and youth in Britain, Nick Dennis, a history teacher and Director of Studies, Mark Corver, founder of dataHE and previously Director of Analysis and Research at UCAS, Dr Peter D’Sena, a former teacher and now Learning and Teaching Specialist at the University of Hertfordshire, and Dennis Sherwood, an independent consultant. Each offered their expertise on the topic drawing their specialisms to the exceptional circumstances of covid as it has exemplified and exacerbated existing, pervasive inequalities in Britain.

Professor Claire Alexander’s work focuses on higher education as a key institution for challenging structural racism and offering a platform for change. She discussed the State of the Nation Report published earlier this year which highlighted entrenched patterns of racial inequality. Within the current context, Professor Alexander stressed the need to consider how patterns of racism shift and change over time. For instance, British BME students enter the university at higher numbers now, but higher numbers in the university system does not mean that this is across all subjects, or that attainment is the same. Once BME students enter university, there is an awarding difference between BME students and white students. Further, there is consistent under representation of BME groups in staffing and curriculum as well.

And the current system of predicted grades could add a new layer to or otherwise compound these existing inequalities by restraining access to universities. For example, research shows that while BME students are overrepresented in university entrance figures, they are concentrated in post-1992 and ‘new’ universities, have lower levels of attainment and poorer graduate prospects than White students. This means that the gulf in access to more ‘elite’ universities such as Russell groups or Oxbridge could be further impacted. Professor Alexander concluded with her earlier assertion that the Covid crisis is intensifying long-existing problems rather than creating new ones.

Nick Dennis began by stating that his ideal system would be a post-qualification entry method into university. He explained that the process of predicting grades is something that teachers are obviously really keen to make sure they do not get wrong, but this process is something that teachers have been asked to do without being adequately informed or prepared. Whilst asserting that estimating grades is fraught with difficulty for teachers he made clear that some schools are keeping detailed notes about why these grades are awarded to aid transparency and accountability. Nick clarified that for some schools, the centre assessment grades cannot be shared, but can become publicly available via a Subject Access Request from the student. Further, Nick explained that Ofqual has not asked schools to sign equality legislation and so without a legal framework, checks and balances against bias and prejudice are varied. Nick Dennis feels that in thinking about student outcomes and the impact of centre assessment grades, racism has not been taken seriously. And he is assured that post qualification entry can reduce racial bias, though not eliminate it entirely.

Mark Corver offers specialised data support to universities on admissions. He began by stating that it was not necessarily a big problem for university admissions to not have any exams and does not foresee the immediate equality impact being massive. Mark offered a brief explanation of some aspects of UCAS predicted grades. Firstly, that predicted grades do not look anything like exam awarded grades (normally about two grades higher). Secondly, that exam awarded grades are not the truth themselves as they have quite a lot of randomness in them. For example: Which questions turn up in the paper?; Has a student adequately prepared for this question?; Variation between markers; Exam conditions; Individual health/nutrition/sleep levels. Random variation in exam grades can result in plus or minus two grades. Mark made the point here that we too often assume that achieved grades are ‘correct’ but they can still be very variable. Thirdly, that the most powerful influence on how well you do against predicted grades is whether you hold an offer/where you hold an offer from/which subject for.

Mark explained that the evidence suggests that when you look at patterns between predicted grades and achieved grades, there are three broad groups who get achieved grades lower than predicted grades: 1) Low participation areas, 2) Asian and Black ethnic groups, 3) Women. Mark’s data suggests that the biggest equality threat to using predicted grades is actually to the white group and boys.

Dr Peter D’Sena, began by clarifying that we are not facing a crisis, but rather crises which are born from historical racial injustice compounded with a health crisis. He stressed that structural inequalities affecting BME groups in higher education ranges from disproportionate recruitment to the attainment gap and overall poorer prospects for BAME student. Dr D’Sena explained that the Decolonising the Curriculum movement, which he considers to be a combination of several movements, is not just about the curriculum. According to Peter, decolonising the curriculum is an interrogation of the old system as universities themselves were built by and within colonial systems, which directly led to structural racism in higher education. Also that the movement relies on student voices and this encompasses knowledge that is rooted in community interest (links knowledge and activism that traverses and bridges universities and communities).

Dr D’Sena identified ten ways to take the Decolonising the Curriculum agenda forward; (1) to recognise that the BAME population is not a homogenous group, but they have suffered disproportionately in this pandemic. Therefore, students of colour may be fearful of physically returning to campus. (2) Students and staff of colour are used in tokenistic ways to push these agendas forward. (3) We should challenge euphemisms and the softening of racism in higher education, taking the phrase ‘unconscious bias’ for example. (4) There is not a one size fits all mode for Decolonising the Curriculum and each individual university has its own practice. (5) The importance of creating better links between staff and students union. (6) Given the dual approach to teaching most universities will adopt in the autumn, new digital spaces can still privilege white, upper classes and BAME students may be less able to learn in a more digitised environment. (7) Divergences in access to digital spaces for both BME staff and students could increase marginalisation and decrease interactivity. (8) Some students will be conscious of surveillance in digital spaces as universities move online. For instance, how will data analytics be used in assessments? Digital spaces can be monitored and policed from both above and below and racialized surveillance is a possibility. (9) Decolonising the Curriculum is fraught with difficulties, especially around the predicting grades system. (10) Peter emphasises that we can use this period to our advantage.

Dennis Sherwood stated that he was fearful of the system around predicting grades being a failure. He claimed that the profound opportunity to do something different when it comes to assessing students may be lost as the system’s reliability and credibility are being challenged in the covid context. He stressed that any chance of doing something different than the usual exam system rests on getting this new predicted grades method right as otherwise reform pressures will be resisted. Further, Dennis explained that teachers have not been listened to, there has been misinformation, teachers have not been kept informed as to what the processes are around predicted grades, and so it is already an ‘uphill battle’. Dennis mentioned the recent FFT Education Lab report which shows a preliminary overbid in every GCSE subject taking into account the existing trends of grade inflation. Dennis ended by reiterating his fears that the opportunity to revise our assessment processes may be lost in the near future.

During the Q&A, many interesting questions and comments were raised. Much of the discussion centred on the use of data by universities and its ability to measure bias and prejudice as well as the need to capture data. The latter (if collected) will identify any unequal distributions of predicted grades in order to ensure corrective action can be taken effectively. Otherwise, the long-term impact will serve to compound existing inequalities and capturing the data remains central to any call for action. Also, there was a conversation around what type of data is most effective, for instance as there is a high risk that the calculated grade process will be wrong for university admissions, UCAS predicted grades could be a more reliable source.

Further there was a robust debate on the practicalities of being a teacher who has come through a colonised curriculum and changing one’s pedagogy, of which the Historical Association, Our Migration Story, Making Histories Project were all mentioned as useful resources. The Runnymede Campaign for a nationally funded centre based on teaching the history of colonialism, empire and migration came up as an effective way for teachers to be trained on how to deal with the history, but also on how to deal with racism.

There was also a conversation that university admissions are not the only problem – we need to be thinking about issues of safe guarding, digital accessibility, graduate prospects, as well and this is where any future RHS work on this subject will be foregrounded.

Please feel free to email me at pastandpresentfellow@royalhistsoc.org with and questions or comments.

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