BME students and social mobility

Posted by Niaomi Collett On 10 March 2016

The recent prime-ministerial BME 2020 goal seeks to increase the numbers of BME students enrolling at university by 20% by the year 2012. This means 50,000 additional BME learners will access higher education by 2020. Using the umbrella terminology of BME is not helpful in terms of the discussion needed today. Participation within the BME group is hugely varied and nuance is required to meaningfully approach widening participation for under-represented ethnic minority students. Currently the most under-represented ethnic minority groups in higher education are black-Caribbean, black-African, Bangladeshi, Pakistani students.

King’s College London is in the top four in the Russell Group for BME enrolment. Overall 43% of our students enrolling this year are BME but this varies substantially across faculties ranging from 75% in our Dental Institute to 18% in Arts and Humanities. Our outreach efforts respond to this nuance; we want to ensure we reach students who will most benefit from our schemes.

K+ programme

K+ is our flagship widening participation programme. It is a two-year scheme for Year 12 students, every year we receive around a 1000 applications for 280 places. 75% of participants are BME, 95% are first in family and 74% are from the very poorest postcodes in the city of London. Our most highly represented groups are Bangladeshi students (22%) and Black African students; however, most of these students are female. White working class boys make up around 10% of the cohort. It is important to note that many students self-declare as mixed heritage and there is a danger in the commentary on BME access that these students are not included.

Engaging high numbers of students from these backgrounds requires looking beyond the usual. Yes schools are an essential part of the puzzle but a community-based approach is critical. We promoted the scheme via charities, youth organisations, local libraries, councilors and civil society organisations, for example London Citizens. We wrote to all our Grade 1 and 2 staff – cleaners and porters to ask them to enroll their children. K+ graduates are asked to go back into their school and community to promote the programme to the next generation of learners.

Understanding the environmental, social and cultural barriers to participation is not a numbers game. To understand the contextual complexity of progression to higher education of young people from BME communities is to understand the complexities of the BME communities themselves and it is important to work with students in the communities in which they are in. Engaging undergraduate student societies is also crucial and we see collaboration with the student population as essential to widening participation efforts. We offer funding to a variety of student groups whose remit is to specifically target young people from underrepresented groups.

Reframing the narrative

This reframing the narrative around BME students as underachievers is essential to support progression and social mobility for students from these backgrounds. Starting from a point of success and focusing on the insights and experiences of those young people who have successfully navigated the higher education system will be far more effective and encouraging than statistics that compare the numbers of young people in prison. According to UCAS data in 2013, Black and Asian teenagers are actually more likely to apply to university than white teenagers in England. In fact, there has been a big increase in applications from students from ethnic minority backgrounds in England, particularly black teenagers, rising from 20% to 34% between 2006 and 2013.

But of course, we know that it isn’t just a case of getting students in but also ensuring they can get on. At King’s we have a full lifecycle approach to widening participation and our BME attainment project worked with BME undergraduates to identify the following issues as having the most impact on their participation and engagement with academic and social life at the university:

  • non-inclusive campus culture
  • non-inclusive learning, teaching and assessment practices
  • underrepresentation of BME academics across the institution.

In 2015, King's College London was one of only eight universities to receive a Bronze Award, of the Race Equality Charter Mark, awarded by the Equalities Challenge unit. Some of our core objectives will be to create a more inclusive culture, increase the proportion of BME staff at senior levels and improve the representation of BME staff within our governance structures.

Also, we are currently undertaking data analysis to scrutinise labour market outcomes for our graduates and working with the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights team to connect students from widening participation backgrounds with the experiences and opportunities that we know engender more successful outcomes in the job market.

To summarise, in order to accelerate the progression of under-represented BME groups in higher education we would ask for three things:

  1. A nuancing of the BME access discussion
  2. For widening participation departments to adopt community based approaches to working with these learners
  3. For the narrative regarding BME access to begin from a point of success


Niaomi Collett is Deputy Director of Widening Participation at King's College London