Understanding the BAME gap
This letter is inspired by the recent call for ‘hope and help’ from Binna Kandola and David Murphy’s conversation (March 2020) regarding the newly created Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. My aim is to provide avenues of thought from the perspective of an aspiring applied social psychologist and from my own and known experiences as a BAME PhD student.
There has been a recent movement in research and educational policy alike to attempt to close the attainment gap between BAME and white students. Despite such attempts, there is still a lack of representation in systems of higher education. In my opinion, this reduced diversity aids the stagnancy of academic culture. One factor impacting this is that there are few role models for BAME students to access and so few who understand the contexts that BAME students can bring to the table. Answers to such issues have included mentorship schemes and further research looking at belonging within the individuals in BAME groups. I believe that listening to suggestions and experiences from BAME individuals as well as investigating the psychological underpinnings that maintain the gaps in education may encourage new policies and systems that could change the academic status quo for the better.
I believe there are a number of cultural responsibilities faced by many BAME students that the culture of education does not account for. Some BAME students live at home and have responsibilities to fulfil in their roles at home, often comparable to carer responsibilities – whereas students who live at university (or in a context where their sole focus is their education) have more time to build their educational skill set (this is not to disregard their own barriers). By making education more accessible and the playing field more equal with regards to opportunities for skill development within institutions, this can begin to close the gap.
Educational programmes need to restructure how individuals obtain the skills necessary to get the grades they are capable of. There could be more applied sessions included in contact time, and there could be more accessible methods of skill development, i.e. online skills development opportunities that structure individual learning that takes place outside of the lecture theatre and seminar rooms. At postgraduate level, there could be a structure that outlines and manages expectations of contact with and the roles of supervisors so that education and life commitments can integrate better. Moreover, whilst mentorship programmes have attempted to tackle issues of representation, this can often create BAME pockets that are not integrated into the wider context. Therefore, I believe a reciprocal mentorship scheme, such as the one adopted by the University of Gloucestershire, could tackle the gap between current lecturers and students. The reciprocal mentorship scheme gives students the opportunity to identify with and humanise their teachers, and gives academics an insight into the barriers faced by BAME students. This should be covered by personal tutoring schemes, but often information is not fed back to change the structure of the school.
From my perspective as an applied social psychologist
Members of BAME groups are just that, members of groups. This begs the question of how the identities of belonging to a BAME group and belonging to the community of higher education interact. It can be argued that academia promotes an individualistic culture that strives on intergroup competition and intragroup comparison, where, often, the esteem of the individual academic comes from surpassing their peers. For those coming from more collectivist communities, where the successes of the group holistically provide the bases of the personal esteem of the individual, it becomes clear that there is a mismatch in the interaction of belonging and the foundational drivers that promote success. If BAME students require feelings of belonging, and academia is set up such that there is little sense of community, especially in large undergraduate cohorts, this could be one reason there are fewer BAME students moving into postgraduate education.
Alternatively, perhaps so few BAME students go on into higher education because it is perceived that there are limited spaces for those that are ‘like them’, promoting ingroup competition and thus producing lower motivation to achieve. This is where greater representation and BAME collaboration will prosper. This is not only about increasing a sense of belonging, but a cultural shift towards perceived acceptance.
This is not a matter that can be addressed with just one solution. The ideas outlined above are only from my perspective, and I am sure many other academics (students or teachers, BAME or not) will have experiences to add to this. A gap in the current literature is a lack of integration of a multitude of perspectives. Here I have presented some ideas as to how a social psychological lens can begin to add to what we understand so far. The help and hope asked for by those running the new task force can be obtained if we do what we do best and scientifically investigate the issues to come to a solution. That being said, I think there should be a nationwide call to hear the experiences of those who fall behind. The greatest solutions will be those that consist of integrated and dynamic models of understanding. This is a big task but I believe there is hope.
Thank you for listening and sharing in my experiences and opinions.
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