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Addressing the gap – What and why are there gaps at OCA?

A couple of weeks ago on #blackouttuesday we posted that these events should be a time for reflection. As an organisation, and individually, we stand in support, but what does it mean to support the needs of this cause? What can we do, both as an organisation, and individually?

Last year OCA launched an ambitious new 10-year strategy, available on our website, that talked of closing equality gaps, and making a curriculum that is ‘sensitive to global and cultural contexts’. But how to get there? How do we make a curriculum that is reflective of the work and perspectives of people all around the world? How do we ensure that there are no equality gaps?

Robert Bloomfield, one of our Photography tutors, recently wrote an article on Decolonising the Curriculum, a really thoughtful piece on his own journey of reflection and understanding of what it actually means to engage the voices of Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic artists in OCA courses. 

My takeaway from that article and discussion was that it is not simply enough to increase the number of referenced artists in a course text and assume that this means that the course is now representative. Nor is it enough to ask a tutor of a minority background to review and re-write a course to produce a fairer reflection (though this would be a start). In order for us to take action, we must all seek understanding first and foremost and then reflect that back in our work. 

I recently undertook a piece of work to understand what and where there are gaps amongst the various different demographic groups that make up OCA. This is something that OCA has to do, as part of statutory requirements, but it’s also something that OCA should want to do. 

I looked at all students who had enrolled on a unit since 01 August 2016 and analysed the data. There were some immediate talking points and questions. Firstly, that numbers of Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic backgrounds are much lower than expected. A quick look at the information from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that in the latest round of data from the 2018/19 academic year, 22% of students identified as from a BAME background. At OCA the current proportion is 7.7%. 

Next, that minority ethnic background students are less likely to submit their work for assessment. According to the data, only 19% of students submit their work for assessment, compared to just over 30% for white students. Equally, white students are more likely to stay on programme and complete than BAME students, 71% compared to 60%. 

And lastly, the average mark awarded at assessment for a BAME student is 56, compared to 60 for a white student. 

That first figure of only 7.7% of students coming from a minority ethnic background was surprising. A report from the Office for Students from February 2019 stated that Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic students are more likely to be the first in their family to go to university, be from low socio-economic backgrounds, and come from more deprived areas. These are exactly the factors that OCA was set up to address.

A 2016 report from AccessHE found that in London, learners from BAME backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in arts education, in some cases 10 times less likely to study art than other white groups. Not only this, but it was commonly stated that there was a lack of representation in the curriculum of Higher Education Arts subjects. This was echoed in a 2011 report by the National Union of Students where 42% said they did not believe their curriculum reflected issues of diversity, equality, and discrimination. 

Now I don’t have definitive information as to why students from Black, Asian, or other ehtnic backgrounds are not choosing to study at OCA, but I suspect from reading the comments on the article and forum, that not just a lack of artists from minority backgrounds is an issue, but the lack of discourse and exploration of those issues within the curriculum itself. This is something that needs to be promoted and encouraged from within OCA itself, and not to rely on students bringing their own experiences to the topic.

Looking at the other results of the data, why would minority ethnic students be more likely to drop out, or not submit for assessment? The same report from the NUS also stated that respondents to the survey undertaken felt that they entered Higher Education without the same level of academic skills as their white peers, that support could be better, particularly from tutors with 1 in 4 stating they felt unsupported. 

We know already that the model of open-access, whilst helping to provide opportunities for everyone, may also create issues of preparedness for academic study. We are in the process of launching our new virtual learning environment, OCA Learn, with better accessibility, better tools for learning, and more to come. Within that we are also revamping our induction process to OCA study, which we have begun by conducting focus groups among students and tutors to understand what is wanted and needed. 

Finally though, where is the gap in attainment between white students and students from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds coming from? 

I suspect if you piece all the preceding elements of information up, of studying an unrepresented curriculum, working on assignments that don’t represent you or how you feel, not finding support that is relevant to you or understands your needs or perspectives, then submitting for assessment, that must be dispiriting at best. 

If the person reviewing your work is also then looking through a lens of a white-orientated curriculum, it is easy to see how students could not achieve higher marks.

All those pieces of the puzzle add up to success at assessment and attaining a good degree, so it takes time to make the changes that will have a real impact. But I would suggest we can start by ensuring that all of us at OCA are aware of the differences of culture, their value, and place an emphasis at the core of our curriculum and everything else that we do to explore these issues of diversity, and equality.

Lets not end here though. Let’s hear your voices, engage with us, and tell us in the comments what you think the issues are, and what can be done to tackle these problems.

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Posted by author: Craig Dewis
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15 thoughts on “Addressing the gap – What and why are there gaps at OCA?

  • thanks for an interesting analysis of statistics. I was always wondering why especially UK (also US) are asking a lot of demographic background data enforcing a difference of being.
    I can read that you write ofter ‘ I suspect’ – what would tell me that this is an assumption . When I started with OCA couple of years ago, I never had a discussion on assessment of not besides the formal phrases that both are an option in the tutor report. I do wonder whether OCA is doing exist surveys with students who left. If yes, whether this information is openly available. If not, what would support assumptions?
    I am aware of some students with learning, psychological or physical barriers. In the past I’ve heard that this group is overrepresented in comparison with HE in UK . Considering Will Woods recent article in this place, I do believe that equality is only a good value as long as it gives support for equal development.. I agree with you that it is not about number and percentage, but understanding different need states and requirements .
    I do wonder whether there is a difference between UK and non-UK students with OCA.
    Thanks for adding perspectives and keeping a constructive dialogue based on shared values and human rights

  • Additional remark: I would strongly urge to drop further use of the so-called ‘race/ethnicity’ survey questions that apparently seem quite common in english speaking countries as UK or US for HE or other kind enrollment forms. First, race is a pseudo scientific constructed term to separate, and second to ask difference means to put attention to. Nowadays, people are mixing up in families anyway (at least my experience from my family background). Value based questions would focus on need states.

    • HI Stefan, unfortunately we have to ask questions of ethnicity and other demographics on enrolment; this is a statutory duty on all Higher Education providers as this information is collated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and then used by Government and other organisations. I agree though on a personal level, as it goes against the concepts of blind selection and other practices to remove unconscious biases.

      • Thanks for your reply, Craig. Truly appreciate your openness.
        Yes, I know the requirements from the UK government. However, other countries in Europe do not ask and do not have such a requirement. Personally, as non-UK resident who truly appreciate the opportunity to be able to study with OCA / UCA in an open and tolerant way, I always check ‘prefer not to say’ , as for me it feels intimidating. Considering the massive evolution and challenge of modus operandi in current times, I raise the point, that even Governmental requirements could be open to critical debate..
        To give an example, currently there is debate in Germany whether the word ‘Rasse (race)’ should be eliminated from the Grundgesetz (the most basic and strongest foundation in German law that was established to let history never ever be repeated again, and was never touched since it was established). In my home country the Netherlands similar discussions are ongoing.

    • I used to have the same feeling as you Stefan but I changed my mind. I think the data can be used to make the case for change. We know race and ethnicity and also where you live impact on your education and job prospects because it’s documented every year. But it’s a complex picture and to be able to respond on an institutional level I think that knowledge is critical.

  • Thank you for a really informative article. Do we have any data for staff/tutor ethnicity? Probably having a diverse staff and tutor pool will be just as essential for decolonising the curriculum and attracting students from under-represented groups.

    • Hi Robert, we definitely have the information as we have to submit that to HESA in the same way as we do for students, although it’s not as easily accessible purely from the way in which it’s stored. Without looking into the data, my immediate thought would be that the proportion amongst tutors and staff would be similar or lower to that of the student body.

      I agree a diverse staff and tutor pool is key, that ability for people to see themselves represented is what is currently missing. Shortly after I started in 2018 I wrote and implemented a Fair Selection and Recruitment Policy which introduced blind selection to try and tackle this issue and reduce unconscious biases.

      That said, I’ve recently started wondering about unconscious biases in the context that while we hope that it will improve a situation and result in a more representative group, it doesn’t necessarily tackle the underlying root cause i.e. if you have racist undercurrents, not being able to see someone’s name for example isn’t going to stop that. I’m not sure where I stand on this one now, I’m not convinced it goes far enough in dealing with the issue.

  • I think that age might also be a factor behind the low (7.7%) number of BAME students vs 22% national average. A large proportion of OCA students seem to be mature students whereas we might expect that the national figure to be higher because the BAME students are younger and more likely to participate not just in Higher Education, but other ‘traditional white spaces’.

    There is no doubt that as minority communities and individuals become more established then barriers to entry (language, cultural etc) become easier to navigate. So for a 50, 60, 70 year old person there could be quite significant barriers, but for an 18, 19, 20 year old – probably less so. With this in mind, it would also be interesting to hear how the OCA % of ‘working class’ students compares to national figures across all ethnic groups. The low numbers of working class people studying art (working in art!) must be an issue.

    I agree that monitoring data is important, as to count everybody in together would merely mask the inequalities that exist in the first place and not provide the much needed evidence to initiate change.

    However, I do understand Stefan’s sentiments, which kind of highlights another important issue – which is ‘BAME’ is a very broad concept that requires a differentiated approach. (And I don’t think that anybody at OCA thinks this at all) but clearly not all BAME people / experiences are the same. Obvious I know but worth noting.

    What I would say is that I have personally covered race and identity in OCA assignment work on a number of occasions and found the respective tutors to be highly enthused about the work and very supportive. The project on decolonisation of the curriculum is obviously important and is probably just one of the areas for OCA to focus on to increase accessibility to BAME participation and improve success. Other ideas could be outreach and gateway initiatives, bursaries, PR and marketing activity.

    • Hi Allan, I think you’re right that could well be a factor in why numbers are lower. I think in part that might be to do with perceptions of Higher Education in the UK generally, in that university study for the younger demographic involves going off to a campus or city based uni, whereas distance learning appeals to the older demographic due to it’s adaptive nature. I was still suprised though; I read a report a while back (which of course I can’t find now) which suggested that distance learning increases representation by Black and Asian students because it removes a lot of the barriers involved in campus study. I’ll have to keep digging until I can find it.

      Working class representation in Higher Education is a topic all by itself, but I know what you mean. I think it ties in with the idea or concept of being able to see yourself represented to an extent. If you’re the first in your family to go to university on top of all the other barriers, I know that from my own experience. I don’t have the figures to hand, but OCA is generally higher than the national average for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, apart from white working class males, statistically the most underrepresented group in Higher Education. That said we want to do more, which is why we started our Schools Project working with local schools in Barnsley year before last. Critically this is specifically working with primary schools as there is evidence to suggest children may have decided to go to university by the time they leave primary school.

      I completely agree that context and nuance are critical in shaping our understanding. It’s trying to move away from the “one size fits all” approach and actually tailor support to specific experiences. It’s not easy but it’s something we’re trying to look at with a new induction.

      I think the idea of bursaries is an interesting one. The University of East Anglia, where I went, has a Black Writer’s Fund to encourage and increase representation on their creative writing programmes. This is just one example but it’s an interesting approach.

  • Re using statistics as ‘case for change’: I very much disagree – first, one need to consider bias of a) methodology, b)definitions . I my own experience it never supported me neither supported those that I felt need support from my judgment. Otherwise, would it not mean that those countries demanding that information are less biased, harassing against ? Wondering …
    Re unconscious bias : I do open up the question of myth that there is something like living without that. I went and did myself in various locations surveys about it (just search for it) and found that everyone has a certain bias. Most important is a critical reflection and awareness of that and to have an open and transparent dialogue with all without ideas of inclusion (what is often related to all are equalland everyone has same needs – again, own experience of how this as a paradigm let people suffer ).

    an additional and rather personal comment : I would see the world embracing diversity and multiplicity when it is reflected in rankings like Fortune500/100 , university rankings, art school rankings, museums rankings . What I mean is that various countries and locations around the globe should be present in was that represent the world we want to live in. Why are top ranking universities either in US , UK or Switerland ? How as the economic aka capital aka profit orientation had impact on where people feel attracted to? When I want to understand cultures , languages etc I want it go there , to live with the people , to make me a foreigner (what I feel I am now at any place as I lived in so many different countries ) ? What is needed that one can study art at eg at a university in Uganda or Bhutan or Peru and having the similar support , a similar appeal to others ?

    What Leads me to language :
    How is the english of the home country (OCA/UCA) impacts the learning environment and success and feeling right on international or ‘non-native’ english speaking students ? (Again – based on my own experience )

    Last study events : how does the participation of students attending (physical or virtual) represent the entity of OCA student demographics?

  • “Last year OCA launched an ambitious new 10-year strategy, available on our website …” could you give a link to this please !!?

  • Thank you Craig for the post and the statistics you presented.

    There is much more to be done, and from my personal perspective I know I need to do more. However, I am positive for change to happen at OCA but am realistic that it won’t be overnight. Unlike some institutions that I have been contact with over last weeks, OCA was clearly thinking about these key issues and where/how to change. Robert’s recent blog post highlighted this thinking. It is good to see posts getting interaction on here and on the forum.

    As an aside, there was a programme by Dr Pragya Agarwal on Unconscious Bias on Radio 4. Link:
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000jmn5

  • With a focus on BAME, I agree with Alan regarding the age disparities between students in OCA and those in Higher Education in general and how this might effect enrolments. However I think there needs to be more exploration of why, even if they do enrol, these students are more likely to drop out or not submit for assessment – what’s in the process that hinders them? If there is unconscious bias how does that manifest itself? Is there a way for OCA to reach out to students who drop out to find out? There are many other questions to ask as well.

    Then, how can the system be changed, including what additional personal support might students need.
    The Open University have (or at least had when I was studying with them) where the student has a tutor for individual units but also a tutor counsellor who stays with them throughout their studies. I know it’s an additional cost but could this be considered?

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