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.