UCL Faculty of Life Sciences


BAME university award gap may be due to exams, not coursework

4 August 2021

The gap in university marks awarded between white and minority ethnic students in the UK may be due to exam scores and not coursework, finds an analysis of cell biology courses led by a UCL researcher.

The report, published in eLife, also includes recommendations to help close the awarding gap. These include increasing funding and staff time to deliver new initiatives and monitor progress, and to do more research into the causes of the unexplained award gap. The report also recommends adjusting recruitment for early career positions in academia while the gap still exists.

Across the UK, minority ethnic students are less likely to receive top marks at university than their white peers; the latest evidence (prior to the Covid-19 pandemic) showed that 81.4% of white students, and 68% of Black, Asian, mixed and other minority ethnic (BAME) students are awarded good undergraduate degrees (first or upper second), a gap of 13.4 percentage points. Data from over 13,000 UCL students graduating from 2016-2018 revealed an award gap of 5.7 percentage points.

Study author Dr Louise Cramer (MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at UCL) sought to identify which component of course grades produced the biggest gap. She analysed the results of 792 students taking six cell biology modules (courses) at UCL, spread across first, second and third years of undergraduate study, 47% of whom self-identified their ethnicity as BAME. The exams and coursework were all judged blind in the courses studied; that is, the examiners did not know whose work they were marking, thus ruling out the possibility of bias on the part of the examiner.

Dr Cramer found that the award gap in the courses ranged from 8 to 13% each year, which can be compared to the UCL undergraduate award gap each year of 7-11%.* But almost all of those differences came from exams; exam award gaps were 13-17% in the cell biology courses under study, while the coursework award gaps were 1-2% in first and second years, and 5% in third year.

Commenting on her findings which included a review of prior data from other sources, Dr Cramer said: “A significant increase in investment is still needed to enable allocation of substantially more staff time to implement existing and new recommendations to reduce the award gap, and increased funding of resources is required to speed up gap closure.”

Dr Cramer’s work and data from others she cites show that award gaps are not the fault of the students, so she said it is important to find ways to ensure universities give equal opportunity to all students to reach their full potential.

She said: “Key to reducing the gap faster will be to discover why exams appear to cause the award gap in cell biology; we do not yet know for example if it is the content of the exams or the process of taking exams. Further research will also be needed to see if the findings apply to other academic subjects. While continuing research to understand the issue, it will also be important to diversify methods of assessment and exam question types. Different students learn in different ways with different strengths, thus a more diverse assessment framework will be more inclusive.”

Study limitations

The study reviewed six courses within one subject area at one university, and may not generalise to other subjects, or to other universities.

Dr Cramer added: “Because the size of the UK award gap for different subjects varies from 3-22%, it may well turn out that different components in different subjects are the main origin of the award gap for that subject, in other words different award-gap patterns may exist in different subjects. Hence different solutions or different combinations of solutions for reducing the award gap may be needed for different subjects. This important concept remains to be explicitly tested.”

UCL’s work to reduce the BAME awarding gap

UCL has been undertaking a university-wide review starting in 2018 of its own BAME awarding gap across the institution, to inform new ways of making the university more inclusive. The BAME Awarding Gap Project is running extensive analysis looking at the effects of various different kinds of assessment types, assessment load, and the move to online learning on the awarding gap. The project team is now engaging with faculties to look at the data in local contexts, while introducing a toolkit of interventions to close the awarding gap. UCL has also set up a dedicated fund to provide resources for these interventions and further evaluations, with the first round of interventions having already started.

Dr Cramer, like some other academics at UCL (for example Dr Kath Woolf, UCL medicine) started her independent research on the BAME award gap in cell biology and on the UK barriers that seem to slow the speed of award-gap closure before the UCL BAME awarding gap project was widely established across UCL. She says she is “delighted to share and contribute in UCL’s goals of removing injustice in education from students from minority ethnic backgrounds and to be able to contribute to the wider excellent efforts of the UCL BAME awarding gap project-team.”

The UCL BAME awarding gap team have invited Dr Cramer to provide a case study based on her work for the project, which she says “very pleased to be able to make a contribution to evidence-based design of interventions aimed at reducing the gap and hopes that it will inspire others and also urges others to look at the many excellent resources the UCL BAME awarding gap team have worked extra-ordinarily hard to produce and disseminate over the past few years”. Dr Cramer has received several departmental prizes for her race equality work (2018, 2019), contributed to UCL-wide race equality focus groups (2019), produced a film for UCL on the impact the ethnicity award gap has on career progression (2019) and given several invited conference talks on her award gap research (2019, 2021).