AffiliationUniversity of Derby
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AbstractResearch into ‘ethnic’ attainment differences in British higher education tends to depict students from minority ethnic backgrounds as disadvantaged, marginalised, discriminated against and excluded. This shapes the current theoretical perspective adopted by university policies and informs practice. However, the consequences of this perspective for students, their educational attainment and university education as a whole are largely unexamined. This study explored the teaching and learning experiences of students, alongside their views concerning how these experiences may have impacted on their attainment. To arrive at a more unbiased and better informed understanding of ethnic attainment differences, the student narratives in this study were analysed from a realist philosophical position. The experiences students related included student interactions, participatory and intellectual engagement, (un)equal treatment and academic study and support. The richness and variety of the individual narratives defied simple analysis and required further discussion of perceptions, interpretations, meaning, understanding and categorisation. Some students talked of social interaction in terms of race, colour, ethnicity, nationality, culture, class and age, while others thought such social grouping unproblematic. Engagement was seen either as participatory engagement in the learning process or as intellectual engagement with the subject. There were perceptions of unequal treatment due to race or ethnicity which contrasted with suggestions of straightforward unprofessional practices. Attitudes to academic study ranged from descriptions of struggling with the academic workload to feeling the lack of intellectual challenge. The analysis and discussion revealed a process of minoritisation that resulted from the current approaches to ethnic attainment. The continued use of group-based social differentiation inadvertently fosters the idea that ethnic and social attributes matter and creates a divisive subtext which loses any sense of our common humanity. Group-based social differentiation can undermine the resilience and human agency of students because it suggests that educational attainment is predominantly determined by ethnic and social attributes, downplaying the students’ capacity to act in pursuit of educational goals. As a result, university policies and practice perpetuate rather than ameliorate the status of minority ethnic higher education students.
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