Universities: is it time to drop the BAME banner?

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The degree attainment gap that exists between white students and those from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds has been well documented over the past decade, prompting increased regulatory focus from the Office for Students and a move up the agenda for universities themselves.

However, while the commitments to tackle these gaps stem from a genuine concern to address inequality in higher education, warns AccessHE, the term BAME has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, and it’s being recognised that, as a mechanism of orienting policy and practice, the term BAME has limitations.

In July, pan-London organisation AccessHE published “higher education awarding gaps and ethnicity in London: Going beyond BAME,” read the full roundup here. The ultimate recommendation: go beyond the BAME label and take a more granular approach, focusing on differences by specific ethnic group.


The report draws on data from the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) in degree attainment in 2018-19, a survey of London higher education providers and analysis of their Access and Participation Plans (APPs) and focus groups with students from non-white backgrounds.

Across London providers, while 36% of white students achieved a First Class degree in 2018-19, only 19% of students from non-white groups did so.

However, the percentage of students from non-white groups achieving a First Class degree differs significantly between groups. It ranges from 36.56% for Chinese students to 16.85% for those from Black/Black British African backgrounds.

Although 29 of the 38 APPs produced by the higher education providers had a target related to closing the awarding gap between white and BAME students, a more granular approach was much less prevalent.

Less than half of higher education providers had a target related to closing the gap between white and Black students, and just under 30% had a target related to white and Asian students. Only one plan had a target relating to a specific group of Asian students, which were those from Pakistani/Bangladeshi backgrounds.

The focus groups were also clear about the limitations in using the term BAME, with one student stating that “… everyone is included in something that pertains to black students and I don’t think it’s helped us in any way”.


In addition to analysing the differences in attainment between white students and those from each different ethnic groups, the report also recommends the higher education providers prioritise a structured, ongoing dialogue with students to produce ‘co-created’ approaches to enhancing student achievement.

On the regulatory front, the report suggests that the Office for Students ask HE providers in England to construct targets related to closing awarding gaps that relate to specific ethnic groups and adopt a more granular focus in establishing their Key Performance Indicators for access and participation.

Among many other recommendations, AccessHE also proposes the formation of a pan-London initiative to address gaps in degree-awarding and outcomes. This would bring together higher education providers, representative bodies, the Mayor’s Office, and other key stakeholders.

The limitations of the term BAME is a conversation being had on many fronts. In April this year, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (a government commission established in 2020) released its report on racial and ethnic disparities in the UK.

The report recommended that the government move away from the use of the term BAME to better focus on understanding disparities and outcomes for specific ethnic groups and were unimpressed by organisations simply pointing to their unconscious bias training as proof of their being progressive.

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