Attainment Gaps: A Personal Perspective

By Professor Ian Turner

I have always been aware of the social injustice in the world in which we live, but it was not until the #BlackLivesMatter movement reached mainstream media in early 2020 that I began to really understand the profound impact it has on individuals. Like many I was horrified by the harassment, prejudice and stereotyping experienced by black people in the envelope of the criminal justice system, I now understand this reaction is because of my white privilege. As I begun to research more the horror spread, as I began to appreciate these same injustices impact almost all aspects of society. Naturally, my eyes focused on the Higher Education system and there were accounts and evidence to show systematic racism is prevalent in the sector, almost all aspects of practice from HR & recruitment processes to successfully receiving external research grants. One particular aspect that stood out was the racial inequalities that exist in Universities such as the awarding gap between white and black students. 

So, what next? I am not an expert in sociology or critical race theory and I clearly benefit from white privilege, so it is not really my problem, right? I strongly disagree with anyone who takes that view. However, like many of my peers I was initially very uncomfortable talking about ‘systematic racism’ and ‘white fragility’ and struggled with how to illicit constructive conversations about the issues affecting so many HE students. If I am honest, I was really worried about saying the ‘wrong’ thing and causing offense, I even found it hard to say the word ‘black’ at the start of my journey. I found this especially challenging when talking to experts in the field or those who could describe first-hand their experience of indirect or direct racism.   

My first action was to apply my academic instinctive to listen, watch and read and thankfully there has been a range of excellent free CPD activities across the sector. I would strongly recommend the page here (link) that collates together a range of materials. If like me, you have difficulty finding time to read then there are a number of informative podcasts and documentaries on the list. I found much of the listening and reading uncomfortable, but that has led to the initial horror turning into a more steadfast commitment to do something. 

Initially I focused my activities in the area I feel most comfortable, working with students. I lead a module called “science communication” which broadly looks at the public perception of a range of informal modes of science from the press to museums, to TV & film. It was only after my awareness grew that I realised how UK-centric the module was, and that there were opportunities provided in the module to talk about race. The institution has recently developed a short course called “let’s talk about race” which I recommend as part of your learning (link for University of Derby staff)

The first step was to decolonise the reading list and framing in the module, once again the library has an amazing range of resources (link)  For me this was in part about including a different cultural perspective on the ‘place’ and ‘value’ of science in the formal reading list, this was achieved by reaching out to some peers in South Africa and Brazil and exchanging reading lists. More importantly, at least in this example was using every opportunity in class with students to both examine the cultural impact of a particular science communication strategy and listen to student perspectives. A topical example is communication of COVID-19 vaccination strategies employed across the world. Though many scientists are pro-vaccination to label objectors as ‘COVIDIOTS’ or worse, and not consider the broad range of cultural factors that influence this behaviour is ignorant at best. 

The second step for me was actively talking about the injustices I have read about with the students. One example is when we spent a session exploring science communication pioneers, those individuals who have a profound impact on public perception of scientists, for example Sir David Attenborough. The session begins with a range of exercises exploring the techniques used by wildlife filmmakers and Sir David himself to create a compelling broadcast before moving on to talk about his legacy. The session then asks students to name other such pioneers who are public facing and have comparable impacts typically Brian Cox, Bill Nye, Steve Irwin and Steve Backshall are very high on the list. This leads to the beginning of a debate about the gender and race of the student nominated pioneers (typically few females and no non-white pioneers), though examples can often be found when challenged the point of the exercise has been made. The conversation then moves on to ask “does it really matter, do youngsters (particularly) need more diverse scientific role-models” the impact is supported by empirical evidence from the Draw-A-Scientist-Test which normally leaves a stunned silence in the room. This is double reinforced by them looking at their own scientist I asked them to draw at the beginning of the session. The debate continues with the big “why” and “what next” questions, I like to frame it by introducing the sustainable development goals and focusing particularly on gender inequality, reduced inequalities, and quality education. To some this whole experience may feel trivial or small, but I hope it is one of many such activities a student will experience throughout their formal and informal education. I will be honest again and say I was very apprehensive the first time I raised these issues, which I know is fairly pathetic. I guess my fear was based on own position of white privilege and the fears of a student making ill-informed comments. These fears have eroded, I actually found that this year in a remote environment, students were much more willing to comment and discuss the issues with me and their peers. I certainly feel I learn alongside the students in sessions like these. 

The institution is committed to tackling the awarding gap and recently approved an Attainment Policy (link) alongside individual college plans. It is imperative we all understand and read these. Personally, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel I will continue to work with students and staff to challenge the very issues that started me on this journey, I need you too as well, everyone of you.