“The great unspoken shame of UK Higher Education”: addressing inequalities of attainment

  • Fiona Mary Ross Kingston University and St George’s, University of London
  • John Christian Tatam Kingston University
  • Annie Livingston Hughes Kingston University
  • Owen Paul Beacock Kingston University
  • Nona McDuff Kingston University
Keywords: inequality, attainment gap, students, black and minorities, value added metric, institutional change, inclusive curriculum


UK universities are achieving some success in attracting increasingly diverse undergraduate cohorts, although distributed unevenly across different types of institutions. It is therefore a concern that once at universities, overall students from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds perform less well in their final degree classifications, even when entry qualifications, subject of study and student characteristics are taken into account. This paper firstly, reviews the research on what is understood about the BME attainment gap, described by an independent university governor as “the great unspoken shame of higher education†and secondly tells the story of institutional change initiated by Kingston University, which is a large, “modern†and widening participation institution in South West London. The multifaceted change involved: defining the problem; establishing an institutional key performance indicator; engaging the university leadership and academy; using a value added metric; and measuring attainment outcomes over a three year period. Results show significant improvement in attainment and qualitative evidence of improved staff awareness. The paper discusses the ethical challenges of complex and institutional change for example, the importance of committed leadership, the value of data as a vehicle for initiating engagement when staff are reluctant to discuss race, equality and social justice, the implications for moving away from a student deficit to an institutional deficit model through developing inclusive cultures and an inclusive curriculum. Finally the paper concludes with describing Kingston University’s role in influencing change across the sector. The approach to changing inequalities in student attainment will be rolled out to six other institutions, supported by a large award from the funding council.

Author Biographies

Annie Livingston Hughes, Kingston University
Associate Professor, Equality Diversity and Inclusion
Owen Paul Beacock, Kingston University
Equality and Diversity Directorate
Nona McDuff, Kingston University
Director of Student Achievement


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