Academic journal article Higher Education Studies

An Exploration of the Link between Minority Ethnic and White Students' Degree Attainment and Views of Their Future 'Possible Selves'

Academic journal article Higher Education Studies

An Exploration of the Link between Minority Ethnic and White Students' Degree Attainment and Views of Their Future 'Possible Selves'

Article excerpt

Abstract

There is a significant gap in degree attainment between White and minority ethnic (ME) students in the UK as measured by the percentage awarded a 'good' degree. The causes for the gap are highly complex; however outcomes for ME students are lower than for their White peers across the whole of the UK higher education sector. This paper explores the extent to which students views of what they believe or expect they can become, their academic 'possible selves' (Markus and Nurius, 1986), may inform their academic help seeking strategies and their subsequent degree attainment. Drawing on group interviews with seventy full-time, undergraduate White and ME students studying at two UK 'Russell group' universities the research finds that a lack of congruence between hoped for, true and 'ought to' selves may be informing, and limiting, the academic help-seeking strategies of Black, Asian and Chinese students compared to their White peers.

Keywords: higher education, possible selves, minority students, degree attainment

1. Introduction

The percentage of UK-domiciled Minority Ethnic (ME) students studying in higher education (HE), at all levels, is statistically higher than that of White students (ECU, 2011). However, there is a significant gap in degree attainment between White and ME students. In the UK degree classifications are: First class honours (1st), Second class honours, upper division (2:i); Second class honours, lower division (2.ii); Third class honours (3rd) and Ordinary degree (Pass). Data shows that while 66.5% of White students studying first degrees receive a 1st or 2.ii honours degree, widely known in the UK as a 'good degree', only 49.2% of ME students and 38.1% of Black students did so (ECU, 2011).

Research by both the former UK Department for Education and Skills (Broecke and Nicholls, 2007) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE, 2010) found that differences in the attainment between White and ME groups could only in some small part be explained by the differing profiles of the students (such as prior attainment, age, gender, disability, deprivation, type of HE institution attended). Even after controlling for the majority of contributory factors, being from a ME group was still found to have a statistically negative effect on degree attainment. Outcomes for ME students are lower than for their White peers across the whole of the UK HE sector, including within Russell Group universities, the leading 24 UK research-intensive universities including Oxford and Cambridge.

The reasons for the attainment gap are highly complex, and understanding and addressing higher educational disparities requires a recognition of the interplay of structural barriers, including poverty and racism, organizational barriers such as teaching and assessment practices and a lack of ME role models, and cultural barriers such as individual and institutional values and beliefs (Law et al., 2004; Richardson, 2008; Berry and Loke, 2011; Singh, 2011, Stevenson, 2012). Arising from, and as a consequence of these, are students' individual psychological factors, such as their academic confidence, expectation and motivation. Indeed there is a substantial body of literature relating to the impact of psychological factors on academic attainment in the UK - for example, Sander's work on academic behavioural confidence (Sander, 2009; Sander and Sanders, 2009), as well as work on student engagement and belonging (Read et al., 2003; Reay et al., 2010 among others). However, little research has specifically focused on the individual psychological factors of ME students (exceptions being Pawson et al, 2012; Stuart, 2009). This is probably unsurprising since locating, even in part, the 'cause' of ME student underachievement within individuals themselves runs the danger of collapsing explanations for the attainment gap back in to a deficit model of blaming ME students for their academic 'failures'. …

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