Creation and Confidence: BME students as academic partners
This case study documents the 'Creation and confidence' initiative at Sheffield Hallam University which has a large BME attainment gap; this student group has been constructed as 'hard to reach'. The project team consisted of a range of academic and professional services staff alongside three student researchers. The project set out to achieve: gaining evidence-based insights into the use of co-design and peer-learning as conduits of confidence-building and belonging of BME students; developing a scalable approach to building confidence and fostering belonging of all students; raising awareness of the need to think differently about explanations of BME underachievement. The team found that the biggest barrier concerned staff engagement as - no matter how much evidence was presented - other facets of institutional provision were identified as having priority, resulting in inertia. Considerable emotional labour was expended in trying to elicit change within a resistant culture. Despite this, there have been some very positive developments and enlightening lessons.

Our blog about the project and the emergent learning can be found at:

Video: Lessons Learnt

What does the scheme entail?

The overarching research question comprised: To examine whether co-design and peer learning approaches make any positive differences to the confidence-levels of BME students and, by inference, enhance longer-term belonging? This would be achieved by introducing either a co-design process or peer-learning process to specific cohorts for a full academic year, with relevant training and support being provided to the course/module/peer support teams undertaking this work. The project would then be evaluated using a range of pre and post-test measures concerning confidence and belonging. It was hoped that there might be a longer term positive influence on attainment and that this would be a welcome, if incidental, outcome rather than expected. In reality, things turned out quite differently….

What support do you get from the University?

The project proposal had received very positive feedback from senior decision-makers within the University and from the BME Forum who had informed the project design and possible outcomes. However, a number of challenges were encountered during this project which meant that the team ended up redefining the success criteria and outcomes of this work. These challenges included difficulties of securing a sample of students within those courses identified as having high attainment gaps. There was demonstrable anxiety displayed by academic staff and resultant barriers which impeded progress of the anticipated interventions. Academic contacts were approached sensitively and an Appreciative Inquiry approach was adopted which deliberately looks at strengths in order to build confidence; however, despite using this approach to stimulate involvement without blame, the team was unable to secure the necessary commitment and aligned thinking to undertake the proposed interventions.

What are the motivations behind the scheme?

The team had developed some exciting pedagogically-robust interventions that it believed would, at least, make a significant difference to the lived experience of all students, including those from a BME background and, at best, might influence attainment, too. In acknowledgement of the resistance faced when trying to implement these interventions, the project was redefined to focus primarily on awareness raising and confidence-building within the staff group across all levels of the institution. This is now viewed as a very positive, if unintended, outcome.

Key benefits to students

Although the scheme was designed to position students as pivotal in this process, students are indirect beneficiaries at this stage, due to recognising that the University needs to raise awareness systematically about the issues faced by BME students, and staff for that matter, before doing anything further. The learning from this realisation has been extremely productive and will position longer-term student involvement in a more meaningful manner. It resulted in construction of a University-wide BME Development Plan which we hope will form the basis of an application to join the ECU Race Equality Charter scheme.

Key benefits to the University

The project team failed initially to recognise the impact that 'Critical Whiteness' has on institutional actions. Within this project, whiteness was not problematised within the design phase explicitly; this possibly encouraged BME deficit explanations from staff whom did not see whiteness as pivotal to this debate in any manner, or in being a conduit for taking wider action. Our new insights into why the project encountered such resistance has allowed for really difficult but meaningful conversations to occur as a prelude to more productive action across the University and to an emerging and shared understanding.

Key benefits to the sector

If taking success as purely achievement of aims and outcomes then this project has been a failure with only one outcome 'Raised awareness of the need to think differently about explanations of BME underachievement' being addressed to any extent. Yet the learning from examining this outcome - and from trying to implement this project in its entirety - has yielded considerable learning which is hopefully of value to the wider sector; especially that it is imperative to consider institutional readiness to engage in difficult discussions about the role played by critical whiteness in shaping the experience of BME students and staff, regardless of the presentation of any compelling evidence which may, or may not, hold sway or sovereignty.

We have published our finding for this project in two peer reviewed publications:

Austen, L, Heaton, C, Jones-Devitt, S. Pickering, N. ( 2017) Why is the BME attainment gap such a wicked problem? The Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change 3 (2), 147-158

Jones-Devitt, S., Austen, L., (2017) Creation and Confidence: BME students as academic partners….but where were the staff? The Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change 3 (2), 278-285