Jeevan Vasagar, The Observer (London), May 22, 2011
University coursework should be marked anonymously to deal with concerns that potential bias against a “foreign-sounding name” can cost students marks, a report by the National Union of Students recommends.
The report also urges universities to minimise “eurocentric bias” when drawing up curriculums. “This is critical, not only to demonstrate to black students that their learning reflects their own experience, but to promote understanding among their white peers,” it states.
It is standard practice for universities to assess exams anonymously because of concerns about preconceptions relating to race, sex or previous knowledge of a candidate, but the NUS report calls for anonymity to be extended across all “assessment procedures”, which would include coursework.
The NUS–which accepts that it is not possible to keep every form of assessment, such as presentations by drama students, anonymous–is also urging universities to address concerns about bias by having any contested work reassessed by a different lecturer.
The report, Race for Equality, is based on a survey of 900 students with African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds. The survey found that, while most students were positive about their institutions, 23% described the universities they attended as “cliquey” and 7% as “racist”. There was also widespread frustration that courses did not reflect non-white backgrounds and views.
A third of black students felt unable to bring a perspective based on their race to tutorials. One student quoted in the report, published today, criticised the university they attended for “not being able to express or hear [our] own experience in learning–especially with a discipline as subjective as English, being told ‘you are wrong’ at the slightest transgression from the norm”.
Many of the students surveyed called for more diverse perspectives in areas such as history, arts and politics. One said: “Britain colonised most of the world and played a heavy role in the slave trade. How can you understand contemporary Britain without acknowledging this history or understanding how the rest of the world shaped it?”
The survey also found that some black students believe they are being “actively excluded” from the Russell Group of leading universities because of institutional racism in the application process. However, others blamed the scarcity of black students at the most prestigious institutions on class, and a lack of achievement at school.
Among black students, just 9.6% achieved the top grades required for entrance to Oxford or Cambridge in 2007, compared with 23% for white students.
The report says: “While widening participation efforts in the last few decades has been successful, these need to extend beyond simply increasing the quantity of students accessing [higher education] towards ensuring that black students are also able to access quality institutions.”
The report notes that in 2007-08, London Metropolitan University accepted 6,115 black students, “almost as many as the 7,815 black students spread between the 20 universities of the Russell Group”.
Some respondents to the survey and the focus groups that accompanied it said they had chosen to attend institutions that were ethnically diverse to minimise the chances of experiencing racism.
The report adds: “There was also a perception among respondents that the probability of experiencing racism in a Russell Group institution would be higher, as there would be fewer black students in these institutions, making the black students who study there more vulnerable.”
Universities should create a “bespoke website” for prospective black students, which could include testimonies from their students and details of support systems and extracurricular activities, the report suggests.
Nearly one in six–16%–of those who responded to the survey said they had experienced racism in their current educational institution. The proportion was lowest among those aged under 20–14%–and highest among mature students. The survey finds that 29% of those aged 40 and over had experienced racism. International students were also more likely to view their academic environment as racist.
The NUS president, Aaron Porter, said: “We have a long way to go to close the participation gap for black students in education. If black students feel unwelcome in classrooms, this must be addressed by tackling the very real racism that still exists on our campuses.
“This report highlights the work that must be done by institutions and government to address the concerns of black students about their learning environment, how their courses are taught, and how their unique perspectives can be brought into the academic environment.”
The survey also found that almost one in three students, 32%, did not trust their institution to deal with complaints fairly. Two-thirds of respondents who had made a complaint were dissatisfied with how it was handled. They cited a range of reasons, including the procedure being too time-consuming or the complaint being ignored.
Some of those who responded to the survey believed that academic staff “stick together” and that making a complaint could therefore jeopardise their prospects. One student said: “It’s staff against you, and your degree is on the line, so you don’t feel like doing anything further that would rock the boat, especially when the person is responsible for marking your work and arranging your placements.”