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Causes of Difference in Student Outcomes

Causes of Difference in Student Outcomes

The Higher Education Council for England published the ‘Causes of Difference in Student Outcomes’ report in 2015. The report focuses on the differences in outcomes for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students, those from lower-socio-economic backgrounds, disabled students and makes reference to part-time and mature students.

The report shines a light on the specific gaps in attainment for these different student groups and draws attention to some of the causes for these differences. However, trying to understand the causes does have its difficulties due to “inequalities outside higher education affect[ing] individuals’ performance within higher education”. The report identifies 3 influential levels into understanding student outcomes:

  • Macro: This includes both the structure of the English higher education (HE) system and socio-historical and cultural structures such as those of race, ethnicity, culture, gender and social background that are embedded in the general environment in which universities, employers and students operate
  • Meso: The individual HE providers and related structures which form the social contexts within which student outcomes arise, such as the curriculum, processes of assessment etc.
  • Micro: This is the level of communication between individual students and staff in the HE environment, including the micro-interactions that take place on a day-to-day level.

Lower-socio-economic students

Assessment of students’ socio-economic status can be identified via multiple methods. HEFCE have used POLAR (Participation of Local Areas) data. POLAR measures the extent of previous progression of young people to HE through ‘quintiles’ on a small area basis and is linked to a student’s postcode rather than personal characteristics. The report highlights HE outcomes for lower-socio-economic students have consistently lower attainment and progression outcomes than more advantaged students “even after controlling for other factors”.

Key findings from the report show that 45% of students from the lowest quintiles gain a first or upper second class degree in comparison to 59% from students from higher quintiles. 60% of independent school graduates were awarded degrees and went into a graduate job or further study compared to 47% of state school students. The report continues to show the differences in all aspects of student outcomes between lower-socio-economic and more advantaged students, demonstrating a clear divide between the two.

Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Students

For BME students, the report demonstrates the importance of separating the diversity of different ethnic groups to highlight the multiple differences between them and the varying factors that influence this. A recurring interesting factor that is discussed is cultural influences. Different cultures have a notable impact on student outcomes and progression routes.

Despite the number of BME students starting full-time first degree courses increasing by 7% between 2010-2013, with white ethnic groups falling by 6%, white students on average continue to have the highest attainment outcomes compared to the average of all other ethnic groups. In terms of variations between different BME groups, black students are the lowest performing group in terms of degree outcomes.

When focusing on prior attainment, it is significantly noted that this “on entry to higher education is the main driver of progression and performance at university”. 72% of white students who entered HE with BBB at A level gained a first or upper second class degree, compared to 56% for Asian students and 53% for black students. In terms of student experiences, white students on average were more likely to respond positively to the National Student Survey question on overall student satisfaction compared with the average of all other ethnicities.

Causal Categories

The report identifies four types of causal categories. These four categories can operate at each of the different influential levels (macro, meso, micro) and should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

  • Curricula and learning, including teaching and assessment practices: Different student groups indicate varying degrees of satisfaction with the HE curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  • Relationships between staff and students and among students: A sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  • Social, cultural and economic capital: Recurring differences in how students experience HE, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situation also affects their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  • Psychosocial and identity factors: The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable. Such interactions can both facilitate and limit students’ learning and attainment.


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