Think about staff as well as students when designing behavioural interventions to address the BAME attainment gap

By Pri Perera, Research Associate |

An unacceptable gap exists between the attainment of different student groups across UK Higher Education institutions (HEIs). In particular, degree outcomes for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students are consistently lower than those of White students, with a gap of 13.6 percentage points reported in 2016/17 on average[i] This disparity exists even when BAME students’ achievements before university are equal or better[ii],[iii] and persists years after graduation, reflected in employment outcomes[iv].

The government announced a series of measures in February aimed at addressing the racial attainment gap[v] and HEIs are working to remove their gaps by trialling interventions such as increasing students’ feelings of self-efficacy or social capital. We are trialling these methods ourselves and will be encouraging others to adopt them if we find they work. However, current interventions addressing the BAME attainment gap in Higher Education often focus solely on students. If we truly want to remove the BAME attainment gap I believe we also need to change the behaviour and perceptions of staff.

The impact of low diversity amongst academics on student attainment needs to be understood

Statistics published by the Equality Challenge Unit in 2013 show that across HE Institutions, only 6.3% of UK national academic staff were BAME [vi]. More research needs to be done to understand the impact of such limited diversity. Analysing HESA 2017/18 data on UK domiciled student outcomes[vii] and (both UK domiciled and non-domiciled) staff demographics[viii], indicative results suggest that universities with a smaller proportion of BAME academic staff are broadly associated with larger racial attainment gaps (see below).












Of course, correlation is not causation, and some third factor might be affecting both numbers of BAME staff and attainment of BAME students. Nevertheless, the association is interesting to note and coupled with the current low BAME academic staff numbers, which will take time to address, begs the question: do we need more interventions targeted at academics when aiming to reduce racial attainment disparities?

If there is a link between the diversity of academics and the BAME attainment gap, it could be for many reasons. Lack of representation can affect BAME students’ sense of belonging university[ix], lead to feelings of isolation[x], and leave students with a dearth of role models[xi]. Research by the Higher Education Academy[xii] has shown that academic staff at HEIs lack awareness of BAME students’ issues and even the existence of racial attainment gaps. Such lack of awareness could also mean that staff are signalling unhelpful assumptions to students. Diversity is often addressed structurally by changing demographics and curriculums[xiii], which can be effective, but does little to alter the learning environment[xiv].


Behaviours and perceptions of academic staff need to change

New research by psychologist Elizabeth Canning[xv] and her colleagues at Indiana University found that academic staff mindset could be affecting the educational success of their students, divided along racial lines. They used a longitudinal university-wide sample of 150 STEM professors and more than 15,000 students across four semesters, they observed that professors who held fixed mindsets compared to growth mindsets[xvi], had twice as large racial attainment gaps in the courses they taught. This was the case even after controlling for confounding factors such as students’ previous test scores and all other available course and staff characteristics.

They argue that academics with fixed mindsets were more likely to engender stereotypes on intellectual ability, demotivating ethnic minorities and lowering their expectations. Although meta-studies on mindset and academic achievement have found little evidence that growth mindset interventions targeting students are effective[xvii], these findings suggest that targeting staff could be more beneficial. In the UK, the Changing Mindsets project is investigating this further, so it will be interesting to see what comes out of that research[xviii].

Interventions targeting staff, not just students, should be considered to remove the attainment gap

BAME students are not a homogenous group and so the factors affecting their attainment will vary[xix]. However, university staff are the architects of the learning environment that students interact with. Encouraging positive staff interactions[xx] may be an additional and efficient way of targeting students that also influences the overall learning environment. Intervening with staff has a cascading effect on the number of students affected too. Unlike when targeting students, interventions targeting staff also have the potential to contribute to institutional change and, involving a smaller group with less frequent turnover, need running less frequently. Although interventions with staff are unlikely to shift historic disparities, they will help ensure that universities don’t put up yet more barriers for BAME students to overcome.

When designing interventions to address the BAME attainment gap, targeting staff should not be overlooked, but instead staff interventions should run alongside student interventions.


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[i] Advance HE (2018) Students statistical report available at:

[ii] Office for Students (2019) Understanding and overcoming the challenges of targeting students from under-represented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds Available at:

[iii] Miller, M. (2016). The Ethnicity Attainment Gap: Literature Review. WPREU: The University of Sheffield. Available at:!/file/BME_Attainment_Gap_Literature_Review_EXTERNAL_-_Miriam_Miller.pdf

[iv] Office for Students (2019) Understanding and overcoming the challenges of targeting students from under-represented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds Available at:


[vi] Equality Challenge Unit (2013). Equality in higher education: statistical report 2013 staff. Available:



[ix] Miller, M (2016) The Ethnicity Attainment Gap: Literature Review

[x] Ozga, J. and Sukhnandan, L. (1998) Undergraduate non-completion: Developing an explanatory model

[xi] Connor, H., Tyers, C., and Modood, T. (2004). Why the Difference. London: Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Available at:

[xii] Higher Education Academy (2012) Black and Minority Ethnic School Degree Retention and Attainment

[xiii] Hu, S., & Kuh, G. D. (2003). Diversity experiences and college student learning and personal development. Journal of College Student Development, 44, 320-334.

[xiv] Elliot, C. et al. (2013) Institutional Barriers to Diversity Change Work in Higher Education Available at:


[xvi] Those with fixed mindsets believe that strong intellectual ability is innate and those with growth mindsets believe that intellectual ability can be developed.


[xviii] Staff and Student perceptions and experiences of Changing Mindsets

[xix] Broecke, S. and Nicholls, T. (2007) Ethnicity and Degree Attainment. Department for Education and Skills Research Report RW92. Available from:

[xx] Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 82–96.

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