Breaking the habit of bias against black and ethnic minority university students and those from a poor background demands effort over a long period, according to a new report.


Professor Sherria Hoskins and Dr Jessica Gagnon, both at the University of Portsmouth, gave their verdict following a Changing Mindset project they ran as part of a new report.


In it, they call for a range of actions to level the playing field for those who might be exposed to  bias in other students, in teaching staff and institutionally.

The report, published by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and the Institute for Social and Economic Research, calls on the government to shift attention away from assessing the value of courses and toward supporting those who are less likely to achieve good degrees and graduate jobs.


Professor Hoskins said: “We studied the attainment gap between those from a poorer background and those from the BAME community and ran interventions with students and staff addressing unconscious bias.

It’s known breaking bias habits is possible but, as with all habits, requires motivation and sustained effort over time.

Professor Sherria, Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Health

“It is critical for educators, higher education leaders and policymakers to encourage, embed and enable detailed analysis of data at a micro level. Without this, the mythology around the reasons for the grade, experience and employment outcomes gaps will persist.


“We found varying degrees of willingness to address bias, and it’s known breaking bias habits is possible but, as with all habits, requires motivation and sustained effort over time.”


The University of Portsmouth-led Changing Mindset project was delivered over three years. It includes evidence-based strategies to create the motivation and skills for change in individuals.


The project found while most university staff and students surveyed were committed to speaking out against hate and to making all students feel welcome and part of the campus community, nearly all also admitted to unintentionally stereotypical thoughts. 


After doing Changing Mindset and habit breaking workshops, there was a significant reduction in stereotype thinking in students who attended.


Professor Hoskins said: “It’s a complex issue that cannot be understood and tackled without tough conversations. We need to look at how people understand change, especially if it’s change to their own biased beliefs. Helping bring about change in beliefs about the abilities of ourselves and others is critical if we are to close the attainment gap.


“In addition, institutions need to commit to change, too, so that individuals are empowered to develop their thinking and behaviour  and can sustain their efforts.”


According to the report, in 2018-19, there was a 22 per cent gap between the proportion of white and black students getting a 1st or 2:1 degree. In addition, five years after graduating, students from free school meal backgrounds earned, on average, nearly £3,000 less than those who didn’t qualify for free school meals.

"It’s a complex issue that cannot be understood and tackled without tough conversations." - Professor Sherria Hoskins

The report brings together the expertise of thought leaders in education at ten UK universities to outline how and what changes could be made to improve outcomes for a disadvantaged minority at universities.


It lays out ten features that could form the basis of a student-focused approach to improving outcomes, including:

  • Embedding a value-added approach to teaching learners from BAME and lower socio-economic groups that recognises their strengths and culture;
  • Addressing the heavy psychological burden of debt on students;
  • Investing in better financial and non-financial support for post-graduate students;
  • A national work experience framework for students that goes beyond a patchwork approach based on unpaid internships.

Report editor Dr Graeme Atherton, director of NEON, said: “As this report shows improving student outcomes means concentrating on which students need support, understanding their needs and then making the necessary changes in policy and practice to make a real difference. 


“Vague attacks on course quality, or forcing young people away from higher education will not help the students who really need to achieve their potential.”