University Futures: the Black student attainment gap
  • November 9, 2017

University Futures: the Black student attainment gap

The Black student attainment gap: a collaborative research project exploring the lived experiences of Black students.

As part of our ‘University Futures’ series, Alterline is bringing together a small group of universities in a collaborative research project to conduct new primary, qualitative research into Black students’ lived experiences of higher education, with the ultimate ambition of helping to close the Black student attainment gap.

Research Focus

Much is already known about the Black student attainment gap. To add significantly to the existing knowledge, we believe there is real value in a project that seeks to better understand the lives and lived experiences of Black students specifically. Emerging research questions include:

Black student attainment gap


The recent government Race Disparity Audit highlighted ethnicity-dependent differences in people’s experiences across all areas of life, including education (Cabinet Office, 2017). Whilst the issue of BME student attainment is complex and an attainment gap exists for all ethnic groups, it is consistently widest for Black (Black African/Black Caribbean/Other Black Background) students across the HE sector (Miller, 2016): in 2013/14 the gap between the proportion of White and Black students awarded a 1st or 2:1 was 26.1 percentage points, compared to 15.2 percentage points for all BME students (ECU, 2015). Such statistics highlight the need for research into the Black student attainment gap to be sensitive to the specific challenges facing Black students, rather than treating BME students as a homogeneous group (Miller, 2016).

A synthesis of research evidence by Singh (2011) points to a host of areas to address in improving Black student retention and success: a lack of support and opportunities to integrate with other students, leading to feelings of isolation; a reduced sense of entitlement to additional forms of support; a tendency to avoid specific help-seeking strategies; a reluctance to ask questions in classrooms for fear of “reinforcing prejudiced expectations about lack of ability”; problems of segregation; low teacher expectation; undervaluing or under-challenging of BME students; and, prejudiced attitudes associated with linguistic competence and discriminatory practice inherent in learning and teaching activities and student support.

Much of the existing work around attainment disparities has been at a high level and quantitative in nature, and it has been understandably difficult for universities to break down data into meaningful subgroups. We think that understanding of this complex issue could be significantly advanced by an in-depth qualitative study, complementing the currently available quantitative data.


Our approach combines life story interviews, capturing the life experiences of a sample of Black students across participating institutions, with reflective journals to document their lived experience. We aim to conduct 10 life story interviews and 10 reflective journals per institution.

Life story interviewing – Black students’ life histories

We propose taking a ‘life story interviewing’ approach to explore the life experiences of students, emphasising autobiographical narratives in order to explore students’ expectations and experiences, in the context of their personal identity and life events. We feel this more longitudinal perspective will be particularly effective for illuminating the complex drivers of Black student attainment. It is a method we have previously used in similar projects.

Reflective journals – Black students’ lived experiences of Higher Education

Reflective journals will be used as the core exploratory tool to document the current lived experiences of Black students, allowing them to reflect on their expectations, their subsequent experiences. and their feelings about these. Journals allow a relatively free and uninhibited expression of a person’s experience, with participants often willing to share intimate thoughts and personal insights that can be more difficult to obtain in an interview setting.



In addition to opportunities for networking and sharing ideas at the two ‘Black student attainment gap’ workshop sessions, participating institutions will receive:

  • A report that includes a summary of the existing relevant literature, alongside a full thematic analysis of the primary research data and case study examples of real students (anonymised) to bring the findings to life
  • A PowerPoint summary of the findings to help you disseminate them at your institution
  • A summary of key findings will also be produced and shared with the sector to inform wider consideration of the issues raised
  • Implementation review – a follow-up conference 12 months later at which each institution presents and shares progress and learning.


We are asking each institution to contribute £24,950 to the study, and we wish to engage 3 to 5 universities in the Black student attainment gap project to provide a breadth of insight and practical learning beyond the reach of a single-institution study.

Why a collaborative project?

Many of our university clients are facing similar challenges, inviting common solutions. We have developed our ‘Futures’ research series in recognition of this reality, bringing clients together to work on shared issues. We hope this will lead to practical action and innovation that contributes to improving students’ experience, learning and ultimately reducing the Black student attainment gap.

The team involved in the Black student attainment gap project:

Professor Tracey Reynolds is Research Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Computing and Humanities at the University of Greenwich. She has conducted research across a range of social issues including black and minority families living in disadvantaged communities. She is an editorial board member of journals Sociology and International Journal of Social Research Methodology and her research awards include ESRC funding on Caribbean youths and transnational identities (with Elisabetta Zontini).

Professor Judith Burnett is a sociologist of generations and social change, and has worked in higher education for 25 years, holding senior positions at PVC level. She has a particular focus on student experience and building academic strength and workforce development. She has been Trustee and Chair of the British Sociological Association.

Dr Elizabeth Carley has a background is in academic research, with an MSc and a PhD in social research, statistics and social policy. At Alterline Beth ensures the research intelligence we gather is focused and articulated into clear and concrete reporting, strategies and actions.

Ben Hickman is a Research Director at Alterline and works with higher education clients to improve student experience. Ben co-founded Alterline in 2011, and since then has been involved in a multitude of quantitative and qualitative research projects to deliver insight into students’ lives and experiences.


For more information on being part of this collaboration examining the Black student attainment gap, or to discuss ideas over a coffee, please contact Ben Hickman, Research Director, Alterline or call 0161 503 5760.



Other collaborations opportunities include:

University Futures

‘University aspirations, decision-making and influencers amongst 6- to 18-year- olds.’ A collaboration between 10 university recruitment and widening participation teams.

Union Futures

‘Being well, doing well’: a collaboration between 14 students’ unions exploring the issue of student mental health and wellbeing.

Library Futures

A collaboration between 11 university libraries looking at the information and digital literacy of 16- to 18 year-olds and undergraduate students.


For more information on any of these collaboration opportunities, please contact Ben Hickman, Research Director, Alterline.




Cabinet Office. (2017). Race Disparity Audit.
ECU. (2015). Equality in higher education: statistical report 2015.
Miller, M. (2016). The EthnicityAttainment Gap: Literature Review.
Singh, G. (2011). Black and minority ethnic (BME) students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success. A synthesis of research evidence.