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The number of students from black and minority ethnic communities (BAME) entering the United Kingdom (UK) for higher education has increased over the past few years. For instance, data from Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE (2017) indicate that in 2015/2016 academic year, 29% of the enrolled students were from the BAME community. According to Cabinet Office, this represents approximately 10% more of what is expected, considering the proportion of people in the UK identifying as coming from the BAME communities. However, as per existing research evidence, there has been a significant gap in academic outcomes between the students from BAME communities and the white students. For instance, data by Equality Challenge Unit, ECU (2017) indicate that in the 2015/2016 academic year alone, 63% of students from the BAME communities achieved upper second- or first-class degree grades compared to 78% from the white community who achieved the same grades. A closer examination of these grades indicates that only 25% of the Black African students and 66% of Asian students achieved a good degree during the 2015/2016 academic year (ECU 2017). Interestingly, after graduating, there was also a significant disparity in employment rates, the BME community students being worse off compared to their white counterpart (HEFCE, 2017). According to Davies and Garrett (2012), this is partly attributable to the fact that the job market requires good or high qualification degrees.
There are numerous and complex reasons for the existence of this academic achievement differences. Whereas there are various well-known issues affecting all students (e.g. social isolation, financial pressure, and balancing family life with studies), students from the BAME communities face additional challenges. For instance, according to Cabinet Office (2018), students from the BAME communities experience barriers associated with cultural differences, discrimination as well as institutional and societal racism. An earlier report by the National Union of Students (NUS, 2011) indicate that students from BAME communities experienced covert and subtle racism or bullying. Similarly, the university campuses also seem to be failing to effectively accommodate BAME students in other areas of wellbeing such as social provision and food.
Other pieces of research have also revealed that the extent to which the university curriculum in some UK universities represent diversity are limited. For instance, participants in the study by NUS (2011) noted that the curriculum was restrictive and did not cover issues of inclusivity, diversity and equality. Other students in that study also mentioned that the courses were mostly taught by non-BAME lecturers who were not a representative of the school population. These findings also corroborate with those of Hopkins (2011) and Bernard et al. (2011), in which the students noted that they experienced both subconscious and conscious stereotyping from other groups of population regarding their academic abilities, leading to lower expectations on them. Moreover, BAME students who had previously schooled in other countries experience additional barriers that they must overcome to effectively adapt to studying in the UK.
Cumulatively, these factors exude the dominant theme that BAME students have an experience of UK university education as one that they do not belong to, meaning that they feel a sense of isolation and ‘otherness’ (Davies and Garrett, 2012). In an interview conducted by Stuart et al (2011) with students from different universities in the UK, the researcher explored the students’ experiences of their student lives. Some of the response revealed that the students experienced a sense of isolation, lack of entitlement – whereby some described their teachers having low expectations on them or underestimating their academic abilities. These experiences, according to Stuart et al (2011) contributed to fears among the students of not fitting, lack of help seeking and lack of knowledge about available help.
The inequalities faced by BAME students in the UK significantly mirror those that exist in the wider society. this proposition is seconded by Bernard et al. (2011) who noted that broader social and political realities existing in university campuses affect the actions and experiences of university students and staff. Whereas other organizations have dealt with the inequalities and injustices faced by ethnic minorities, the higher education sector still falls behind other parts of the education sector (e.g. the local government and NHS) in addressing these injustices and inequalities. As such, the higher education sector must identify better ways of addressing the problem of BAME student’s attainment gap.
Many universities have made significant efforts in reducing the attainment gap by developing a collaborative relationship between students’ unions, leaders and staff; but there is still a long way to go as far as this problem is concerned. Eliminating this attainment differentials and enhancing the BAME students’ university experience still requires sustained work from different organizations across the higher education sector, including further research. Having realised that The issues related to negative experiences of BAME students in the UK seems to be many, and the list can go on and on, and that there is a paucity of research highlighting how these factors affect student’s academic outcomes or how this academic gap comes to exist. This study conducted a focus group interview with BAME students from two universities in the UK to examine the experience of BAME students in higher education and evaluate how those experiences affect their academic attainment.
To evaluate the identify the experiences of BAME university students and how those experiences affect their academic attainment.
To examine the link between educational experiences and student attainment
To explore factors associated with educational experience and attainment
To evaluate institutional strategies and assess the impact of these in tackling under achievement in education
The next section is the literature review chapter of the study. It will explore previous works done in this field of study and how it applies to the current study. After literature review, the report will highlight the research methods and methodologies applied in conducting the research. Here, the author will give an account of the research question as well as the relevant techniques of investigation used to answer the research question. After research methods and methodologies, the next section will highlight the findings and a discussion of those findings. Here, the report will majorly discuss the study findings while comparing them with the various theoretical frameworks discussed in the literature review section. The last chapter of this report will be the conclusion and recommendation chapter, which will represent a summary of the entire study and an overall assessment of the results. Moreover, this section will entail an evaluation of the challenges and limitations encountered during the study before making specific recommendations for future research.
An overview of literature reveals various theoretical factors or presences that affect BAME student attainment and contributes to an attainment gap between them and the white counterparts. In a study by Davies and Garrett (2012), the central theme that emerged was that of togetherness or belongingness. Respondents in the study noted that the white students were the dominant demographic, and this contributed to the BAME student’s feelings of lack of belonging or isolation. Other students in the study also expressed disinterest in joining clubs and societies dominated by students from other ethnic communities due to fear of segregation and differentiation. Contrastingly, students from BAME communities who participated in the study by Jessop & Williams (2009) at a largely white community university in the UK felt a string sense of belonging. Other students in the study also revealed that they had easily integrated, attributing this to the small size of population within the school. However, despite these remarks, the students acknowledged the exitance of certain forms of racism that they did not want to explicitly define as racism.
Lack of belonging and support has also been highlighted as by several other empirical studies as experiences that contribute to BAME students’ attainment gap. For example, Bernard et al (2014) conducted a focus group interview among social work students from 8 UK universities and reports of marginalization emerged from the responses. Specifically, the respondents noted that the curriculum was perceived to be Eurocratic, implying that the European social work practice was superior than others; and this undermined the student’s cultural and personal experiences. The focus group in the study by Bernard et al (2014) also noted the existence of racial segregation at classroom level, whereby white students only interact with their white counterparts while black students only interacted closely with their black counterparts – despite the courses being diverse. More importantly, the focus group noted a feeling of tension whenever class discussions revolved around sensitive issues of behaviours and beliefs, and thus some avoided to participate in those discussions even if they wanted to participate. Ultimately, Bernard et al (2014) concluded that these issues created a non-inclusive learning environment that led to non-participatory learning spaces for BAME students.
In another focus group by Read (2003) with UK university students (some of whom were from BAME communities), the participants discussed how they would actively mitigate their position as ‘other’ by choosing a university whose majority of students were like them. Specifically, the participants noted that they did not want to go to a university where they were the only ones who looked different; and therefore, thought it important to attend a more balanced university. Nonetheless, a central theme that emerged across the focus group was not the composition of the student body but the one that was related to the institution’s culture as confusing and disorienting. Moreover, the focus group in the study by Read (2003) noted that constraint on lecturers’ availability also contributed to a feeling of distance between them and their lecturers, leading to an overall sense of alienation.
To summarise, BAME students tend to have a questioning of their sense of belonging, making them feel as though they are members of the ‘other’ group (Coughlan, 2018). According to McGregor-Smith (2017), universities have now acknowledged the existence of institutional racism that presents in the form of structural inequalities arising from learning, assessment strategies, and teaching. These structural inequalities, according to Lammy (2017), are partly responsible to the negative experiences BAME students that are associated with their attainment gap and require sustained collaboration between universities and students to address (Ansley & Hall, 2019). Whereas many universities have made significant efforts to reduce the attainment gaps through research and other effective initiatives, it remains that most of the previous research are largely theoretical and descriptive. Moreover, research is needed to evaluate the experiences of BAME students enrolled for different courses in different universities, especially considering that the attainment gap varies based on these factors (Wild, 2017). Bearing these issues in mind, the current study focused on the experience of select BAME students and how these experiences affect their attainment.
The study drew from the SDT to understand BAME students’ experiences and how those experiences affected their academic attainment. The SDT has been used by researchers for decades to conduct empirical research, explaining how human have three major psychological needs that motivates their desire to succeed namely: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. As per McGregor-Smith (2017), relatedness in the need to feel supported by and connected to others; thus, have a sense of belonging. Indeed, as earlier discussed, most literature material on this subject highlight how BAME university students experience or fail to experience a sense of belonging at university.
Nonetheless, believes in SDT argue that there are two additional needs that should be considered when evaluating human’s desire to achieve well-being and fulfil their goals. For instance, Deci & Ryan (2012) argue competence is needed to make one feel confident and capable of carrying out a certain task to achieve specific goals. Ideally, this competence is about self-perceived confidence and not objective confidence levels; and this explains why a student who achieves 50% marks may feel competent while one who achieves 70% may not depending on their personal circumstances.
On the other hand, autonomy is the need for an action to be self-directed and integrated with the individual’s sense of self, as opposed to being enforced or directed by others. Therefore, if a student feels supported (relatedness) and connected to others, they become more capable of achieving their goals; with their actions driven more by internal resources and less by external pressure (autonomy). Ultimately, they can experience a greater well-being and achieve their potential (Coughlan, 2018).
Additionally, SDT proposes that the level at which an individual fulfils these three psychological needs depend on various external environmental factors (Vasconcellos et al 2020). Therefore, this theory acts as a complete substitute for the traditional ‘deficit’ approach that attributes BAME student’s academic attainment gap to lack of ability or failure to adapt. As such, SDT views individuals’ disadvantages as a function of external procedural and structural inequalities that demotivates them from achieving their full potential (Rigby & Ryan, 2018). It is particularly important to avoid the deficit approach in this case because of the ‘internalised racism’ phenomenon. According to Gilal et al (2019), internalised racism refers to when BAME students accept racist actions by internalising any negative form of racism advanced towards them, including the view that they may not be as intelligent as their white counterparts. Other reports (e.g. NUS, 2011) also highlight the importance of avoiding the deficit approach, including in the most recent recommendations by the NUS (2011) addressing the BAME academic attainment gap, in which it was suggested that procedural and structural reforms would be the best approach to solving the attainment gap.
This study aimed to identify the extent to which BAME students experienced a fulfilment of their three psychological needs during their learning experiences and how those experiences impacted on their academic attainment. Thus, the study focused on the student’s psychological needs element of SDT, necessitating a qualitative approach to exploring the students’ complexities.
Focus groups were used because of its ability to allow an interaction among participants to an extent that helps them to clarify and explore in a way that would not be easily accessible in a one on one interview, enabling the participants and the researchers to gain new insights to the subject matter (Gillison et al, 2019). According to Ntoumanis et al (2021), focus groups are often used for sensitive topics because participants find an opportunity to access mutual support when discussing the issues and expressing their feelings that are common to their group but seen as deviating from the mainstream culture.
Conservation of social science has significantly evolved into an age that the importance of understanding human experience sand their perspective of those experiences have taken a centre stage (Sim & Waterfield, 2019). within the tools that conservation social scientists can use, focus groups are some of the most commonly used approach. According to Jones et al (2018), focus group research is a technique of research that involves the researcher assembling a group of individuals to discuss a topic with an aim of understanding their complex personal experiences, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs – usually through a moderated discussion.
Focus groups are more often used in conservation research compared other forms of relatively fewer known techniques such as the Q methodology and the nominal group technique (Plummer, 2017). According to Van et al (2015), focus groups’ popularity is partly attributable to the rise in participatory research academic social sciences. It is a qualitative data collection approach that takes advantage of both local knowledge and scientific research. As per Lewis et al (2018), focus groups are one of the most cost-effective forms of qualitative research that is equally seen as an effective alternative in participatory research that can be used to derive different worldviews and paradigms. Both sociologists and psychologist have used focus groups since the 1940s, even though its popularity has grown in the past few years among other disciplines such as education, media, communication and studies (Edgeley et al 2020).
The current study selected focus groups research technique due to different reasons. For instance, the link between an individual’s perception and their socio-cultural situation is a key decision-making factor for selecting a research technique because most people derive their mental constructions, interpretations and notions from their immediate environment and develop them for practical knowledge (Hallam, 2021). however, due to the increased popularity of participatory research in the recent years, it is important to have a detailed understanding and conceptualization of focus group technique before applying it to any study. The following are the four major steps taken in the current study to effectively use the focus group technique.
The process of selecting the research design begun by identifying the research question and the main research objectives to be achieved. Based on the earlier mentioned research objectives, a list of questions was developed to guide the focus group discussion sessions. This was followed by seeking an ethical clearance from the university ethics committee. After that, participant identification was the main course of action. During the participant selection, the researcher relied on synergistic relationship and group dynamics between the participants to facilitate data generation (Macnaghten, 2017). Even so, the composition of the group participants largely depended on the study objectives. According to Litttman et al (2018), an individual’s ability to engage in self-disclosure largely depends on how comfortable and natural they are with the entire process. Against this backdrop, the current study identified its participants as BAME students in UK universities.
After participant identification, the next course of action is participant recruitment. Participants from two health science subjects from one university were sent email invitations. This was despite criticisms by Guest et al (2017) that local contacts largely depend on participant availability, accessibility and willingness – thus exposing the researcher to lack of direction and control in the recruitment process. As per Hennink et al (2019), this loss of control and direction of the recruitment process is familiar with the convenient sampling technique, which is basically what the current study relied on. As such, the convenience sampling approach exposed the current study to selection or volunteer bias. Nonetheless, convenient sampling, as a form of purposive sampling, is widely recommended for focus group because it depends on the capacity, willingness and ability of participants to deliver relevant information (Sim & Waterfield, 2019).
Another important consideration made during the recruitment process was the number of respondents selected to participate in the study. Whereas the rule of thumb is that 6 to 8 participants are enough Jones et al (2018), some researchers have used as few as four participants or as many as 20 participants. However, a significant drawback of focus groups is that there is no guarantee that all the participants will take part in the discussion. To overcome this shortcoming, the current study over-recruited by 10% (n=15), bearing in mind that whereas ten participants are large enough to provide a variety of perspectives, it is small enough not to be fragmented or disorderly.
Because of the generally one-off encounter design of the focus group, and the small number of participants in the study, it is impossible to have an exhaustive discussion of the topic through just a simple discussion. As a result, Jones et al (2018) recommended that researchers seeking to use focus group research designs should have a minimum of three discussion meetings for simple research topics – which is what the current study did. Furthermore, due to time and resources constraints, the study could not apply the principle of theoretical saturation, where discussions are made until no more new information emerges from them (Sim & Waterfield, 2019).
However, considering the current COVID-19 containment measures social distancing and isolation, as well as the readily available technology for online meetings, the current study used Zoom online meetings technology, whereby all the focus group discussions were held online. Each focus group was steered by a member of the group, and the discussions held in each group were themed around autonomy, relatedness and competence. For relatedness, the question was: ‘how well do you feel you fit with the other students in your course?’ For competence, the question was: ‘do you feel you encounter any challenges in achieving your full potential?’ for autonomy, the question was: do you think you can express your own opinion during your course, be yourself and in control of your own academic achievements?’ each focus group lasted for 40-60 minutes.
In the current study, the assistants collected non-verbal data based on four sources of such data as per the recommendations by (Litttman et al, 2018). The first source was the participant’s behaviour reflected on their posture and body displacements. The second source was the participants’ speech markers such as silences, hesitations and gaps; the third source was the participant’s tonal variation (pitch, and volume); while the fourth was the participant’s interpersonal means of communicating their attitudes. That said, the main the current study collected data through tape and audio recording, which were later transcribed verbatim for further analysis. One of the main advantages of tape recording that made it so attractive was the fact that it avoids missing out on any piece of information revealed during the discussions.
The recorded data was transcribed verbatim and the transcribed data were analysed through thematic analysis, combining theory driven and data-driven approaches of thematic analysis. The analysis process began with the derivation of initial codes, with a specific focus on the students’ experiences. The codes were then carefully analysed to identify the impact of external factors on students’ competence, relatedness and autonomy fulfilment. The codes were then indurated to develop themes, yielding three thematic areas.
This chapter is presents in three different sections highlighting the extent to which students felt their experiences of learning and teaching environment affected their academic attainment their needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness.
The focus group discussions revealed how the student’s needs for relatedness was unfulfilled. Across the three focus group discussions, students noted that lack of relatedness not only affected their learning outcomes and experiences but also their general wellbeing. Some said they felt excluded, distressed and frustrated during their courses and linked these experiences to their BAME status. For example:
"When I first started my class, I almost left….I was not the only black person in the class but I was the only black non-British citizen…(crying). While she’s got the British accent, I got African accent. I elt so isolated and that no one wanted to be with me. "
The students also associated the lack of relatedness partly to the poor on-campus ethnic diversity, highlighting how a majority of the studnets and staffs are white British who do not understand that backgrounds and cultures of the BAME students, or the problems they faced. For example:
"In the whole hostel, I am the only black person…there is none who looks like me that I can interact with or have the kind of conversation that resonates with my culture or how I have been brought up. "
The discussions also highlighted many instances where they have experience either direct or indirect racism both in work and learning environment. However, being the taboo, it is, the students found it a challenge to report the incidences. They felt that being BAME students, they are stereotyped as having low intellectual capabilities, being bad people or having more mental health issues, with most of these stereotypes being reinforced by the study materials.
"When we are having our groupwork in class, some white British students even mention a few references that people from minority ethnic people have more mental health issues that other populations….actually he said ‘back people’…and comments like that create some kind of stigma to us. "
The focus group discussions also highlighted how they are avoided by their non-BAME counterparts and excluded from groups, even outside class. For instance, one participant noted that:
"I feel because we are from minority ethnic communities, the White British students do not talk to you because of where you come from or how you look. I think this is a horrible experience because one day, I approached a white student to ask for direction and he looked at me up and down without talking to me. But when a white girl behind me asked for direction, she showed her. "
The students also explained how they are often judged by the non-BAME staffs and students based on their accents and skin colour:
"The first thing that someone considers is that I am a black woman….despite the fact that it is difficult to change how they perceive you. "
Conversely, the students also discussed their experience of relatedness with some students and staff members. Most of them talked of how they felt a sense of belonging with their BAME counterparts, which gave them a sense of support. for example:
I feel good that I am not the only black one in our class….I do feel comfortable with you guys and love the conversations we hold together...for a moment I felt I was so open and honest…and I felt that I do not have to be careful to be careful with what I say because we just understood each other.
They, however, noted that there is still much to be done in fostering inclusive learning environment that enables both the BAME and non-BAME students to easily interact and integrate. Despite appreciating the regular activities and events organized by the university for the BAME students, they felt that these events have a double effect because they make BAME students feel isolated:
Yes, there are different activities for us BAME students, but I feel that if the non-BAME students where here listening to this discussion, they would be at a better place to understand us. As opposed to having us here alone and saying mentioning these issues separately. Ideally, you can’t claim to integrate two parties in the absence of one party.
Nonetheless, others felt that some of the non-BAME students were generally supportive and friendly to them:
In terms of general interaction, I can engage with them and have a conversation and once we are talking, they become very accommodative. Therefore, in terms of general interaction, I have no problems.
Some of the students also expressed how they achieved a good connection with some non-BAME staffs who were caring, friendly and open-minded, even though they perceived them as minority:
Some of the white British lecturers understand our problems and can relate to us easily. If we could have more of them, we could be better and feel safe to talk to them.
Across the three focus groups, the students noted how they felt a lack of competence within the school environment. Some pointed out that this was partly as a result of the cultural difference between their home country and the UK because they received little support in adapting to the UK system of education. For example:
I feel I have lost some confidence because I realised I do not know as much as I though I knew…moreover, some of the things I grew up with are not here and my upbringing of how things are done in my home country does not completely resonate with how things are here.
Many students also reported how they were disappointed by their grades and felt they had not achieved their full potential. They said that despite putting in a lot of effort in their work, it was not appreciated by the marks they received. For some students, this ultimately has a negative impact on their motivation to study:
Yes, I feel that I work so hard, but the grades do not reflect this. I just want to pass and more on to the next level of my studies, but I can’t. I have a feeling that if we are all given an opportunity to be our best, we would all excel.
Yes, I feel that I work so hard, but the grades do not reflect this. I just want to pass and more on to the next level of my studies, but I can’t. I have a feeling that if we are all given an opportunity to be our best, we would all excel.
They felt that receiving low grades demotivates and demoralises them because they must be ‘twice good’ when competing with non-BAME students for employment opportunities. According to one of the respondents (P1), this ‘twice good’ rule was inculcated into them by the barriers they and their families experienced:
If you are from a minority ethnic community and you have to compete over the same with the White British, you have to be twice good. You cannot be just the same level with them and expect to achieve the same.
Others expressed the concern that they were not being supported to achieve the high grades they desired to achieve. For example:
I am not impressed by just a pass grade. I feel very annoyed if I get 50 because I put in a lot of effort. I am a proud person and I want to achieve high grades. I do not just want to be above average; I want to excel yet I do not feel supported by everybody enough to achieve the high grades I expect.
Moreover, some participants felt that the teachers might have misunderstood their assessments as a result of the cultural differences between them and their non-BAME counterparts. For example:
When we write essays that are related to our cultural background, they may not have a better understanding of the content and thus have a bias about it. I can be very candid about my culture and experiences of it, but they may not necessarily understand it. Because they may not understand it, they may mistakenly give me a wrong mark.
Across the three focus groups, the students expressed how they could not be themselves within their learning environment. They generally felt pressured to behave in ways that conformed to non-BAME norms both on campus and during placements. For example:
Sometimes I feel like I am an imposter because I have to change my voice and accent, or act like I am really a clever person. I know that if I had my own accent, I would talk like where I come from and would be probably not liked here. I therefore feel fake (p3).
When I am out there on campus, I must act like I speak the Queen’s English. I must do this because it is the only way to feel accepted and fit in the society. I therefore feel like I cannot be myself when I am out there.
The students also noted that this was reinforced by course materials, which were considered to lack relevance and restrictive to their BAME background. For instance,
If I was in control, the content would be much different. There are just many gaps in the content that we are taught. It almost feels like diversity is this little pinch of salt that they add to the content to make it look inclusive. Otherwise, there is just very little in it about people from minority ethnic groups.
Several other students also indicated that they felt uncomfortable when expressing their own ideas in class. For example:
Whenever I think I have an idea and want to express it to the entire class, I am immediately put on the spot and suddenly just feel like a stupid person and that I should not think that way. So I realise that I better keep quiet.
Other students noted that they have tried to overcome this barrier by raining issues of race and ethnicity in class, or through formal discrimination, but they acknowledged how tiring, demoralising and stressful it is. While some feel motivated to challenge the restrictive curriculum, others lacked the motivation to do so. For example:
I feel like I have been labelled as the only kid in the class who talks about race and all the other diversity issues. In that I felt alone and isolated.
Just like anybody else, I came with high expectations because its human nature to want to excel but everything has turned out to be just a struggle and now I cannot be bothered anymore.
The attainment gap between BAME students and white British Students in UK’s higher education requires an urgent solution, especially the institutional causes of inequalities. Being a highly topical issue, the UK government has made significant efforts to drive change and reduce the issue of inequality through various participation and access plans and strategies – including putting pressure on university administration to achieve verifiable progress in reducing or eliminating the attainment gap. Nonetheless, there is a significant paucity of theory-driven research to evaluate the experiences of BAME students and how those experiences influence their academic attainment (Panesar, 2017).
The current study sought to identify BAME student’s perceptions of their learning and teaching environment, and how it affects their academic goals through the fulfilment of the three psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Most participants in the focus groups gave an extensive rendition of how these needs had generally not been met which had a significant negative impact on their motivation to achieve their full academic potential. Moreover, some students in the focus groups also discussed about how their needs of competence, relatedness and autonomy had been fulfilled, for example when engaging with their BAME counterparts or when taught by some lecturers.
Generally, the findings of this study corroborate with the findings of other studies that have previously reported on various BAME student experiences that affect their academic attainment. However, this study applied the SDT model to provide a richer and more in-depth insight into BAME students’ experiences of learning and teaching; and how those experiences impacted on the students’ needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. In this discussion section, there will be a consideration of the study results regarding each of these three needs and how they influenced the students’ learning and teaching.
Failure to fulfil their relatedness needs emerged as a significant factor undermining BAME students’ academic attainment by affecting their academic success and wellbeing, consequently affecting their sense of competence and autonomy. Previous pieces of research that applies SDT to education often provide a straightforward definition of students’ experience of relatedness for example, ‘a feeling that the teacher likes, values and respects them as opposed to feeling rejected or disconnected from the teacher. The findings of the current study reveal more complex BAME student experiences, which they attributed to lack of relatedness with both service users during their placement and academic staff. They attributed this lack of relatedness to two major factors namely low ethnic diversity within campus and stigmatization or judgement by non-BAME people in terms of their accent and skin colour; automatically assigning them to minority groups. In corroboration with the studies by Bernart et al (2014), participants in the current study noted that they experienced incidences of direct and indirect racism that are related to discriminatory stereotypes inherent in the UK society. participants also thought that they were considered inferior to the White British counterparts, a perception that is usually reinforced by discriminative course materials and non-BAME lecturers who do not understand their culture and challenges they experience. As per the focus group discussions, the lecturers seem to use teaching materials that generally discouraged relatedness. They also revealed that they would be avoided or ignored by their non-BAME counterparts which led to a sense of isolation. For most of the participants, this was a continuous occurrence that seemed to relate to various aspects of their academic experiences. It was felt to affect their overall wellbeing, creating a variety of negative emotions including distress, anger, frustration and discomfort.
The focus group discussions also revealed that the students’ need for competence was unfulfilled, with many expressions their disappointment with their grades. Despite having high aspirations when entering the course and working hard to achieve high grades, many students felt that they lacked the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Compared to their white British counterparts, the BAME students who participated in the study felt that the teaching and learning their environment limited their ability to excel. For other students, this was associated with lack of support to adapt to the UK educational system, an issue that was also highlighted by Shaheen (2016). The focus group discussions also revealed a sense of lecturers marking down their assignments due to a lack of understanding of the BAME students’ cultural perspectives and background, as well as the stereotypical belief on BAME students’ lack of intellectual ability. A similar issue was highlighted by NUS (2011), which reported that fair and transparent assessment procedures was a major factor of concern, and that it set a ground for prejudice, leading to students’ sense of low self-confidence.
Regarding autonomy, the study participants felt that this need was less fulfilled. As opposed to encountering prescriptive and controlling teaching styles in the lectures, the participants described how their learning environments negatively impacted their sense of identity. Some of the respondents explicitly spoke of how they could not be themselves by being pressurised to comply with the dominant social norms to fit within the society. this contributed to a sense of internal conflict and for some individuals, involved changing their accent and thus feeling ‘fake. As per McGuinn (2020), this contributes to a sense of low self-esteem and self-confidence as well as higher levels of anxiety and stress. Many participants thought that the narrow curriculum restricted their autonomy; leaving them unable to express their views because they perceived their ideas to be irrelevant.
The application of SDT in this study has enabled a broader understanding of BAME students’ experiences and is useful for institutions aiming to support students’ aspirations for academic excellence. The finding of this study can be practically applied by educationists to improve BAME student’s experience of higher education which may ultimately improve their academic attainment.
First, it is important to note that non-BAME academic staff may lack the understanding and awareness of issues affecting BAME students and may therefore be unable to effectively address them. Speculatively, the reason for this is the failure of academic staff to acknowledge that the institution is racist; which is basically a perception that racism is a societal or external problem and not an institutional or internal problem. According to Frings et al (2020), this belief also contributes to their unwillingness to address the issues in fear of saying the wrong things or politically incorrect. Moreover, according to Jankowski (2020), some staff may attribute the achievement gap between BAME students and non-BAME students to problems that lie with the students or their cultures (i.e. the deficit model) instead of institutional problems. Therefore, it is important for institutions to train their academic staff on inclusion, diversity and equality; enabling them to understand the importance of challenging discrimination and racism. This will facilitate a meaningful and constructive way of implementing interventions against discrimination.
Lecturers can also play an important role in fostering relatedness by being open-minded approachable, and empathic. Tearing students as individuals and making a personal contact with them could bel build a trustworthy relationship and rapport with them. Similar remarks were made by Tatsi & Darby (2018), who emphasised the importance of students connecting with academic staff who are non-judgmental, warm, and caring; making them feel safe. If all academic staff could interact with the students at this level, it could eliminate the taboo barrier of reporting incidences of racism. Providing support to BAME students could also help to tackle discrimination and racism.
It could also be possible to foster relatedness among students by developing support systems such as holding frequent focus groups and peer mentoring schemes. The current study highlighted how students felt comfortable when talking to each other about problems they commonly face, as well as how they understood each other in a friendlier level. Thus, it would be necessary to stop homogenising BAME students and separating them from their non-BAME counterparts. Moreover, lecturers could play an important role in promoting an inclusive community where students are respectful and appreciative of each other’s’ cultural differences, leading to an integrated relationship among them.
To effectively support competence among the students, academic staffs should acknowledge the importance of giving supportive feedback that for example, appreciates the student’s efforts by showing curiosity about the issues raised by the BAME student. In the current study, the focus group discussions revealed that this form of appreciation was missing. Acknowledging BAME student’s efforts may help to raise their confidence and feel safe t speak out about their discrimination experiences.
On the other hand, BAME students’ autonomy can be promoted by promoting their perception of having choices and a voice in their academic affairs (Wild, 2017). in the current study, some students mentioned that they had to fake their accent to fit with the none-BAME counterparts. To promote autonomy, students should be encouraged to explore their own identities through academic programs that diversify, decolonise and internationalise the students’ academic experience (NUS, 2011).
Evaluating the extent to which BAME students’ experience of the relatedness, autonomy and competence needs impact their academic attainment has delivered a much comprehensive insight into the teaching and learning factors within their learning environment. Whereas higher education can potentially transform the lives of BAME students, UK universities need to implement various measures to facilitate BAME students’ academic attainment., and by effect, reduce the attainment gap between them non-BAME students. By addressing the institutional causes of the lack of autonomy, relatedness and competence needs fluffiness, UK universities can achieve significant gains for the equal academic attainment gap.
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