Topic briefing: BME students

Questions for universities and colleges to consider:

1. How are you collecting evidence of possible differences in access, student success, and progression of BME students, particularly any attainment gaps between BME and white students?
How are you strategically considering evidence across the whole institution to make progress in this area?
How do you disaggregate your disadvantaged BME students to ensure activities are effectively targeted?

2. How could you better listen to and engage with your BME students, so that you can provide effective support and address any barriers facing them?

3. What systems do you have in place to robustly evaluate the impact of your work with groups of BME students, particularly in targeting the gap in attainment?
How will you disseminate your research findings to help inform effective practice across the sector?
Have you considered how you could share and disseminate the findings from smaller-scale activities and projects using sector networks such as the Higher Education Race Action Group (HERAG)?    

4. How do staff members at your institution work flexibly and collaboratively with others at all levels across the institution to support BME students?

5. How do you work with external partners to build a shared infrastructure to support BME students?
What systems do you have in place to monitor and evaluate collaborative activity to ensure that your collective resources are having an impact on outcomes for BME students?

6. What systems do you have in place to develop and test new, impactful approaches to target students of different ethnicities in your unique institutional context?

About this briefing

This briefing gives an overview of current challenges around access, success and progression for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and explains how universities and colleges are working to support BME students through their access agreements. We consider how institutions are working to support BME students across the whole student lifecycle, and we place particular emphasis on the differences in degree attainment between some BME students and white students. This briefing also suggests questions that institutions might wish to consider when further developing this work in future.

Many institutions and organisations do other work to support BME students that is not reported in access agreements, so this briefing is not an exhaustive picture of work to support them across English higher education.

We hope this briefing will stimulate thinking and discussion about how BME students could be supported more effectively by universities and colleges, leading to more evidence-led approaches tailored to institutions’ own context and circumstances.


What do we know about BME students?

The latest analysis of entry rates by UCAS shows that there are significant differences in higher education entry rates between ethnic groups. Research shows there is disparity in the type of institutions BME students attend and in the subjects they study compared with white students.

There are significant variations in the experiences of higher education between BME and white students. Retention rates are lower for all ethnic groups (apart from students of Chinese ethnicity) than their white peers. There are also disparities in the progression of different ethnic groups from undergraduate study to both employment and further study.

How are degree outcomes for BME students different from outcomes for white students?

There are stark differences between ethnic groups in terms of whether students receive a degree, and the degree class they achieve. These gaps persist even when controlling for other factors which may affect attainment, such as the student’s age and qualifications on entry. This suggests that disadvantage continues into and beyond higher education. Since the differences in outcomes cannot be explained by common factors that influence students, this suggests there may be issues, for example course or institutional structures and curriculum, which explain the underperformance of BME students.

The Equality Challenge Unit’s (ECU’s) Equality in higher education: statistical report 2014 highlights the significant gap in degree attainment between ethnic groups in England. 73.8 per cent of white UK-domiciled qualifiers receive a first or upper second class honours degree, compared with 57 per cent of BME UK-domiciled qualifiers and only 46.8 per cent of Black UK-domiciled qualifiers (see chart below). Attainment of Black students (defined by the ECU as “black or black British: Caribbean, black or black British: African and other black background”) is significantly below what we would expect to see from their sector-adjusted benchmark. This suggests that this group faces specific barriers to success.

HEFCE’s Higher education and beyond: Outcomes from full-time first degree study report provides the most recent detailed analysis of a range of outcomes for different groups of students. The report shows that:

Figure 1: Percentage point difference of the outcome from the sector-adjusted average split by ethnicity.


Source: National strategy for access and student success.

Note: There is no difference from the benchmark for white students in terms of being degree-qualified. Where a bar is filled in the graph, this indicates that the difference is not statistically significant. 

Why it’s important to address differential outcomes

Under the public sector equality duty, which came into force in April 2011, institutions are required to have due regard for the need to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and people who do not share it.

It is therefore important – both for institutions and for OFFA – to consider the reasons behind the attainment gap and to investigate what practices, activities and programmes influence BME students’ attainment.

The national strategy for access and student success outlines the need to address the persistent gap in attainment rates for students from different ethnic minority groups. It highlights the work of the HE Academy and the ECU in gathering evidence about how the content and delivery of a curriculum can affect BME student retention and success, and the implications of this for policy, practice and further research. This work has not found a single, universal approach to closing the attainment gap. However, it does offer a set of guiding principles that institutions may find helpful.

OFFA’s guidance on addressing the BME attainment gap

In their access agreements, many institutions describe an aim to increase BME attainment in generic terms but often do not specify the programmes and activities they have in place to achieve this. Where institutions mention pilot projects designed to improve BME attainment, the outcomes of these are often not followed up in subsequent access agreements or monitoring returns. We therefore encourage institutions to tell us more about these activities, and how they develop and evaluate them, in order to help us track progress and highlight good practice.

We would like institutions to identify whether they have an attainment gap between particular groups of students. For those who have identified a gap in BME attainment, we would expect to see them working towards closing the gap, for example by:

We continue to encourage institutions to disaggregate between different ethnic groups rather than treating BME students as one homogenous group. When assessing the attainment of BME students, institutions should consider other variables that may affect these students – for example whether they come from a low participation neighbourhood or from a low income family. Analysis of the intersection between different protected characteristics will help institutions target activity effectively to close the attainment gap.

What do institutions report doing to support BME students across the whole student lifecycle in their access agreements?


Student success


Case study Kingston University                            

Financial support