The BME attainment gap, education and ‘the student experience’ at King’s College London

In 2014, King’s College London embarked on an enormous project to assess the value of ‘rebranding’ the university as ‘King’s London’. The project failed, with students overwhelmingly opposing the proposal, though nonetheless cost an estimated £300,000. Though the change did not go through, it was an instructive moment. Dropping the word ‘college’ might seem superficial, yet it indicates the university’s current identity crisis, its confusion as to what it is, what it’s for, what it does. A college is evidently place for education, but King’s London could be anything; a consultancy firm, a property developer, a tourist attraction, a hedge fund… anything.

The vocal opposition from students, however, suggests that despite the attempts to turn them into passive consumers, many retain a commitment to universities as a place of learning. This commitment was displayed again a few weeks ago, when students from the King’s Ethnic Minority Association (KEMA) stepped up their campaign against the BME attainment gap, which is 7% higher at King’s than the national average. They pushed for an open meeting with the Principal, Ed Byre, to air their concerns. They spoke with anger and passion, sadness and fear about the despair and alienation they sometimes felt in the university. It was powerful and moving. It was also evidence of how deeply they cared about their own education, how invested they remained in the university, even as they recognised that it was failing them.

When the students spoke, they were concerned about the fundamentals of teaching and learning; classroom dynamics, module choices, teaching styles, marking criteria. They were worried about how the Prevent duty and Islamophobia were corroding their relationships with their teachers; they were appalled at the lack of diversity on reading lists; they were disappointed by the lack of academics of colour. Unfortunately, universities seem increasingly preoccupied by issues tangential to teaching and learning. The relentless pursuit of the ‘student experience’ has reoriented focus away from education itself, diverting time and money into shiny new buildings, apps, and websites, none of which addresses the racial inequalities in higher education.

As the KEMA campaign has gained in strength, so has the KCL Fair Pay for GTAs campaign. King’s College London relies heavily on GTAs, employing around 700 across the university. In some departments, such as English, GTAs deliver the majority of the first year teaching. The reliance on PhD students and early career academics on precarious contracts is part of the wider trend towards casualisation in Higher Education. It is also evidence of the university’s dismal attitude to teaching in general, seeing it as incidental rather than central to its existence. Take marking, for example. The current contracts see GTAs required to mark a 1500 word essay in just 18 minutes. It’s impossible to do justice to a student’s work in that time, so GTAs work well above their contracted hours to deliver fair feedback. Feedback is crucial to student development, perhaps even more so for students from less privileged backgrounds who will have received less personalised attention throughout their education. As many GTAs can vividly recall being undergraduates, they shoulder a huge sense of responsibility to give fair, honest, detailed feedback, despite the poor payment.

Worse still, the already-notorious Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the proposed government solution to the uneven quality of teaching looks set to entrench the disparities that are already rife. Early plans for the TEF will see mass data collection in the style of the National Student Survey, with students ‘ratings’ for teachers gaining increasing power in determining hiring, salaries and contracts. This change will likely be a disaster for equality, as there is plenty of research showing that women and ethnic minorities are consistently rated lower than their white, male peers in student feedback, even under controlled tests.

In response to concerns about inequality, universities like to invest in outsourced programmes to school teaching staff in equality and diversity issues. But no amount of ‘implicit bias training’ can improve the education of BME students in a system in which teaching and learning are themselves derided. It’s time to put education back at the top of the agenda. Not ‘the student experience’, not ‘luxury accommodation’, but the very basics of teaching and learning. This process begins with investing in teachers, putting money into better training, more permanent teaching roles, and fair contracts for those who do teach on a part time basis.

Casual contracts disproportionately impact on those whose position in academia is already the most precarious: young black and working class academics. These are precisely the teachers who are most able to give BME undergraduates the sense that university is for them, and that it’s possible for them to achieve highly and stay in Higher Education.

Bridging the attainment gap and making universities into spaces where students and staff from all backgrounds can flourish will not happen overnight, but the first step is simple: invest in the very thing the students came to ‘experience’: education.

Photo: King’s College Diagonal, by Istvan