What is the degree awarding gap?

The degree awarding gap, also called the degree attainment gap, refers to the difference in the proportion of one group receiving a first/2:1 compared with another group.

The phrase ‘BME, or BAME, attainment gap’ refers to the difference between the proportion of White UK-domiciled students who are awarded a 1st or 2:1, and the proportion of UK-domiciled Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students who are awarded the same degrees.

Across the sector the most recent data shows that, overall, 79.6% of white students received a first/2:1 compared with 66.0% of BME students, representing a degree awarding gap of 13.6 percentage points.

However, degree attainment differs widely by ethnic group, with the gap in proportions receiving a first/2:1 compared with white qualifiers particularly pronounced for qualifiers from a black African (24.9 percentage points), black Caribbean (20.8 percentage points) and other black background (25.5 percentage points). The degree attainment gap was much narrower for Chinese (4.5 percentage points), mixed heritage (5.0 percentage points) and Asian Indian qualifiers (5.1 percentage points).

The degree attainment gap at Sheffield Hallam is above the national picture at eighteen percentage points.

Why do we need to address the gap?

Addressing the degree awarding gap is a matter of social justice and fairness. In addition, if BAME students are being disadvantaged by their university it is in contravention of the legal obligations for universities as set out in the Equality Act 2010 and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Perhaps more importantly there is a labour market premium attached to having a 1st or 2:1 as it can prohibit students from accessing certain jobs or careers. BAME students already face significant discrimination in relation to access to and success in the workplace. In addition having a 1st or 2:1 is often a prerequisite to getting on to a post-graduate degree.

You can watch a video of Professor Jacqueline Stevenson talking about what the gap in degree outcomes is here:


Why is there a degree awarding gap?

A number of research studies have been undertaken controlling for a wide range of other factors that might influence student attainment and outcomes. These have each concluded that even though the gap was reduced, ethnicity remains a significant factor. As the Office for Students notes, ‘the differences in degree outcomes between ethnic groups persist even when controlling for other factors which may affect attainment  such as the student’s age, sex, course and qualifications on entry. Since the differences in outcomes cannot be explained by these common factors, this suggests that the cause of the underperformance of BAME students may be associated with other factors such as institutional structures and curriculum’. In other words BAME students face an ethnic penalty in higher education.

The causes of the gap are complex but can include:

  1. Externally: gender, disability, social deprivation, previous family educational experiences of HE, type of institution; home or campus-based are all significant
  2. Pre-entry: The quality of information, advice and guidance (IAG) given in schools and
  3. colleges; type of 16-18 courses studied (which can effect choice of university and course).
  4. Internally: course studied (as some course award more 1st and 2:1s but have fewer BAME students); racism; problems of segregation; low teacher expectations; lack of role models; feelings of isolation or a lack of belonging; staff expectations/prejudiced attitudes associated with linguistic competence; students’ expectations; discriminatory practices – teaching, learning, assessment and student support; Whiteness and White privilege; undervaluing/under-challenging BME students all have an effect.


A good starting point for understanding the causes of the gap are to read these two reports by Miller and Mountford-Zimdars and colleagues. Otherresearch papers and reports can be found on the Resources, Reports and Research page.

Of course the degree attainment gap only measures final outcomes for students. However there are also differences in relation to access, retention and attainment at modular level.

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson talks about the reasons for the gap:


Addressing the degree awarding gap at Sheffield Hallam

Over the last academic year we delivered over 30 initiatives across our 18 teaching departments.  This year we are continuing this work as well as focusing on four Hallam-wide initiatives.

In undertaking this work we have used the five distinct phases of work which can be adopted to address the gap as identified by Mountford-Zimdars and colleagues in their report. These are Confirming, Exploratory, Awareness-raising, Interventions, and Review.

  1. Confirming: This involves statistical analysis of differentials and the development of the evidence base for future work.
  • We now have aggregated data from across the last five years for both our departments and for the whole university. This shows that there are wide variations across different departments, with some having no gap, and for different groups of BAME students.
  1. Exploratory: hypothesising causes, which may involve further statistical analysis, or qualitative research with staff and students to investigate causal mechanisms.
  • All 31 departmental initiatives were developed from hypotheses drawn from institutional data, staff perceptions, student concerns, or sector-wide research. This approach is being continued this year.
  1. Awareness-raising and communication: among academics, other professional staff and students. All staff and students need to be involved in such communications.
  1. Testing of strategies and interventions: short term strategies can produce some quick wins but these need to be balanced against longer term approaches which will make incremental but sustainable results.

The departmental initiatives had variable outcomes, predominantly awareness-raising about the gap. For this year we are aiming to make more sustained impact by:

  • Making the attainment gap more transparent and visible with institutional commitment to effecting change occurring across the University and across departments.
  • Departments committing to long term funding (2 or 3 years) to ensure strategic management of institutional approaches to addressing the attainment gap
  • Developing a coherent institutional strategy – in partnership with key stakeholders – which makes clear our institutional commitment and approach.
  • Delivering a number of institutional initiatives across the University
  • Making further training and advice available to staff (and students) across the institution. This includes training on how to deal with issues around race/racism/micro-aggressions, understanding and dealing with data, developing proposals which avoid deficit approaches etc.
  • Departments implementing multiple interventions, supported by appropriate resources (staff and financial),
  • Head of Departments having responsibility for affecting change.
  • Having significantly more engagement with students, including the Students Union, adopting, where feasible, participatory action research approaches to our work.
  • Undertaking further research with students, academics and other stakeholders to enable more nuanced understanding of our own students experiences and how change can be affected at a local level
  • Having closer engagement with the work of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Team and especially its Race Equality Charter work, Hallam’s employability and placement advisors, and the SU amongst others.
  1. Review: this involves evaluating or at least observing the impact of initiatives or interventions. This stage can be particularly problematic as results can take a long time to be observable.