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At the BERA Conference 2023 our symposium was the first to examine attainment disparities in racially minoritised university students. Four papers showed how interpersonal relationships, institutional structures and curricular matters are implicated in the formation and persistence of degree-award gaps. Methodologies drew from various disciplines and perspectives: qualitative and quantitative research methods; and critical and participatory approaches, including datasets gathered from the UK and US.

Exploring lived experiences of racialised students

The degree-award gap – the difference in the award of a ‘good’ degree between racially minoritised students and their White peers – is a decades-old ‘ethnic penalty’ (Hasmath, 2011). Its effect is evident in disparities in degree classifications, employment patterns and pay. The gap also contributes to the ‘broken pipeline’ to postgraduate study and, ultimately, the underrepresentation of racially minoritised academics in higher education (HE) (Bhopal, 2018). This paper, presented as part of our BERA 2023 Conference symposium, drew on interviews with 29 university students to better understand the phenomenon. A Bourdieusian theoretical framing identified variables that constituted racialised student-participants’ ‘different’ university experiences. Those variables encapsulated three themes: the institutional/structural, the curricular and the relational. Accounts pointed towards a ‘racialised university experience’ that contributed to the formation and persistence of the gap in HE (Perumal, 2019).

‘The degree-award gap is a decades-old “ethnic penalty” that is evident in disparities in degree classifications, employment patterns and pay … and contributes to the “broken pipeline” to postgraduate study and, ultimately, the underrepresentation of racially minoritised academics in higher education.’

Impostor phenomenon among racially minoritised university students

The impostor phenomenon (IP) is characterised as a feeling of intellectual fraudulence (Clance & Imes, 1978). Conducted with 250 Black female university students in the UK and US, this study revealed that IP negatively correlates with belonging, which in turn, is strongly implicated in the degree-award gap. While attainment disparities are reducing, academic experiences and the wellbeing of racially minoritised students continue to be negatively affected (Canning et al., 2019). Our cross-cultural quantitative study found that belonging mediated the effect of IP on academic satisfaction and performance. The qualitative element, which featured the accounts of 10 Black women, revealed that IP and ‘unbelonging’ dominate UK Black students’ university experiences. Our research contributes to a deeper understanding of the effect of impostorism across ethnicities and cultures in HE.

Student–staff partnerships in narrowing the Black degree-awarding gap

The Inclusive Newcastle Knowledge Centre recruited and collaborated with a School of Engineering Student Advisory Board (SAB) in a cyclical process of dialogic interactions, learning and research to better understand the degree-award gap affecting Black students. Participatory action research strategies and community organising principles were deployed to empower marginalised, silenced voices (Freire, 1972; Wood, 2021). Twenty-two Black home students shared their university experiences, revealing factors impacting their learning, including: unbelonging, sparse interpersonal relationships, unsatisfactory pedagogical experiences, microaggressions/racism, and pressures of cultural/familial expectations. Drawing on those findings and the SAB’s reflections, a Black Engineering Network was established to support students in response to concerns. This study illustrates how co-creation enables universities to positively engage with the gap and take effective steps towards social justice.

‘Conspicuous outsiders’: Understanding Black students’ experiences in healthcare programmes in one university

Building on Bourdieusian-inspired theorising in medical education and race, this research examined the challenges faced by Black students as they navigated practices and knowledge embedded in the professional and educational cultures of healthcare. Based on analysis of focus group data with 21 Black students from a wider project on attainment gaps, we found that Black students were frequently positioned as racialised and classed as outsiders in contrast to the dominant White middle-class habitus. Students were made to feel culturally invisible – their ethno-cultural dispositions, experiences and educational trajectories devalued and misrecognised – which resulted in marginalisation and difficulties accessing and mobilising resources to support their studies. Students’ underrepresentation also made them racially hypervisible, and scrutinised in terms of how they expressed their Black identities. They engaged in practices which countered, and anticipated, anti-Black racial stereotyping.

Call to action

We call on universities to pay attention to the way(s) HE is ‘experienced’ by racially minoritised students, particularly in their encounters with institutional structures and relationships in educational spaces. Less visible processes, such as the impostor phenomenon, also contribute to awarding gaps. Equally, under0representation and dynamics of in/visibility contribute to racialised students’ marginalisation. The findings from our studies triangulated well, pointing to a multidimensional, systemic problem in urgent need of resolution.


Bhopal, K. (2018). White privilege: The myth of a post-racial society. Policy Press

Canning, E., LaCosse, J., Kroeper, K., & Murphy, M. (2019). Feeling like an imposter: The effect of perceived classroom competition on the daily psychological experiences of first-generation college students. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(5), 647–657.

Clance, P. & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241–247.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin.

Hasmath, R. (2011). The ethnic penalty: Immigration, education and employment. Routledge.

Perumal, R. (2019). BME students’ differential outcomes in HE: An ‘ethnicised’ university experience? BERA 2019 Conference, Manchester University.

Wood, J. (2021). Reweaving the fabric of society. CitizensUK.

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