The University of the Arts London (UAL) prides itself on being in the world’s ‘Top five university for Art & Design’ so why is there still an attainment gap between its BAME students and their white counterparts?
On October 23, 2016, the UAL Students Union, Arts SU, sent an email to enrolled students across all six colleges to inform them of the attainment gap that exists within the institution.
“This year we discovered that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students … are 21 per cent less likely to graduate from UAL with [a] 1st or 2.1 compared to their white counterparts,” said the email.
The attainment gap, or education gap as it is sometimes referred, “is the difference in ‘top degrees’ – a First or 2:1 classification – awarded to different groups of students”.
For many students, the thought of not reaching academic expectations is a daunting prospect but for those within the BAME minority, it is an even more frightening reality reflected in UAL’s latest statistics.
“Art school is meant to be diverse”
The Equality and Diversity Framework Annual Report, 2015 and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Report 2016, are the universities most recent documents on race and education.
In the current report, and unlike the others that came before, seven pages have been dedicated to BAME students, racial equality and the attainment gap.
The phenomenon that is the attainment gap, however, is not exclusive to UAL. Recent articles in The Guardian highlight issues far deeper than expected, indicating that the attainment gap affects BAME students even before they start in further education.
A recent study by YALE Child Study Centre also confirmed The Guardian’s claims, which indicated “implicit biases” towards black students by white teachers from pre-school age.
Hansika Jethnani, ArtsSU Education Officer, believes the attainment gap is due to a lack of cultural understanding amongst UAL educators towards their students.
“The tutor really didn’t understand their work because they were not black”
Out of a total 1459 academics at UAL, 1333 are white and only 126, BAME.
“The attainment gap has been a huge problem for years and is an issue the Students’ Union is trying to tackle with UAL,” said Jethnani. “One student said they were quite frustrated because they got a 2.2… they seemed on track for a 2.1 or a first but defiantly not a 2.2. They said that the tutor really didn’t understand their work simply because they were not black,” she later stated.
Former UAL: Wimbledon student and current Black Students’ Officer, Annie-Marie Akussah, also believes the attainment gap is due to a lack of cultural understanding amongst UAL educators.
Sharing her thoughts on the issue, she revealed: “I think it is pathetic that this is the level we are at…art school is meant to be diverse, not in terms of students and staff but the entire community.”
Having moved from Ghana, Africa to the UK five years ago, Akussah was not only shocked to find she was the only BAME student in her year studying painting but also by the whiteness of her syllabus.
“After six months at Wimbledon, I was ready to leave… I spoke to my tutors and said: ‘You either move me to CSM, Camberwell or Chelsea or I am out of UAL’.”
Jane Smith*, who studies at LCF, revealed to Artefact how UAL’s final year press show, showcasing the works of UAL fashion students, was a prime example of where “culture does not fit in with LCF branding.”
“I look at photos from the press show and students of African descent are rarely selected to showcase their pieces,” Smith said, “how do we know that students are not disheartened by their tutors failure to acknowledging their culture, any culture… this could have an affect on their grades.”
Jane Elliott, a former American teacher and anti-racism activist, believes the attainment gap is a more severe issue than a cultural misunderstanding.
Known most famously for her Blue eyes-Brown eyes experiment, which “labels participants as inferior and superior based solely upon the colour of their eyes”, Elliott claims institutional racism from white academics is the reasons why the attainment gap exists.
Speaking with Elliott, who is white, over the phone about the attainment gap, she said: “The western education system is built on racism. White people have proven they have the power, and power corrupts.”
White people, specifically academics, from Elliott’s perspective, have ensured the attainment gap is possible by installing in students the opinion that ‘white people are the superior race’ through the teaching of school and university syllabuses.
“In my country, and probably yours, we teach in such a way that we see white men as being superior to others and having the right to express that superiority in whatever way they want to.”
Students from SOAS, University of London recently began a campaign to ban white philosophers such as Aristotle and Voltaire from their syllabuses due to the “degrees of racism” they felt they were experiencing within the institution.
Coining the movement as “decolonising the curriculum”, SOAS students have argued in favour of introducing philosophers from backgrounds of African and Asia heritage.
Dr Nicola Rollock, from the University of Birmingham, believes that even if the factors which influence the attainment gap, i.e. parental income, the area you live, were controlled, “discrepancies” would still exist between BAME and white students.
Acknowledging race as a major factor for the attainment gap, Rollock also claims that people of colour have “brought into the myth” that Britain and other like-minded societies are post race, as a result, for instance, of seeing a “black man as president”.
Issues such as these, Rollock claims, have enabled the attainment gap to exist freely within institutions like UAL as well as SOAS and as a result, are fooling students into believing that what they are experiencing is not inequality.
The solution to fixing the attainment gap is no easy task. However, UAL continues to address the problem through different methods, which have been relatively successful.
“Campaigning and getting students involved is a massive benefit,” said Jethnani, “the ‘Liberate my degree’ campaign is one example which aims to get students thinking about if their degree is representative and not just dominated by white males.”
Events hosted by Arts SU and its Officers such as Working Through the Gaps also aim to highlight and address the attainment gap through group discussion.
“People of colour have brought into the myth that we are post race.”
Dr Nicola Rollock
Attended by those such as Angela Drisdale-Gordon, Assistant Dean of Students at UAL, and Stephen Reid, Deputy Vice Chancellor & Race Champion at UAL, the last event in October 2016 saw more than 50 students in attendance.
“Our course is slowly improving but there is still a lot of room for change,” said an Arts student from CSM. “I hope that with time, more people will feel confident enough to address with their tutors if their course is too white.”
Other steps to improve the attainment gap at UAL were also seen following the hashtag #UALSoWhite, which continues to campaign for equality and diversity within the institution.
The #UALSoWhite campaign also introduced a list of demands including number four: For UAL’s KPI’s (Key Performance Indicator) to state “the abolishment of the BAME and International attainment gap in five years.”
The KPI responded to this demand and by 2022, it aims for the percentage of first-degree home BAME students achieving a 1st or 2:1 will be the same as for first-degree home white students.
However, it is evident from the exclusion of BAME students from outside the UK that more work needs to be done.
The University of the Arts London continues to address the attainment gap but only time and the next lot of statistics will determine if the gap has finally been closed.
*Not her real name – the student did not wish to be identified.
Featured image by Nia Hefe Filiogianni