Mind the Gap: Addressing Award and Progression Gaps in Business Schools

Addressing the award gap from various approaches has become a high priority of higher education establishments nationwide. At the end of 2018, The Office for Students (2018) called for a new approach to regulate access and participation within HE. This included the aims to eliminate the gaps in access, progression, and degree outcomes within a five-year period, particularly those based on ethnicity, disability, and POLAR quintiles as found within their analysis.

In a recent descriptive and statistical analysis, Manchester Metropolitan University investigated the differences in degree attainment within the Faculty of Business and Law. The analysis was based on routinely collected data of 9,177 undergraduate students who completed a degree within the Faculty between academic years 2014/2015 and 2018/19. The following key variables were identified as significant barriers to student progression and award of a ‘good honours’ degree within the University:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Entry qualification
  • POLAR quintile
  • Commuter split
  • Placement split.

Of these variables, undertaking a placement year was the strongest predictor of degree attainment in the multivariate analysis. These findings are consistent with the rapidly increasing body of literature surrounding student attainment across the UK and form the basis of a longitudinal study and actions being taken across the Faculty of Business and Law to close the gaps. A North West Award Gap Group (NWAGG) comprising representatives from Business School Faculties at Manchester Metropolitan University, Liverpool John Moores, UCLAN, and Salford University has been established to ensure regional collaboration and a commitment to sharing best practice to drive rapid change within Faculties.

Based on the challenges that students face and the increasingly diverse student body, many have requested change within higher education institutions to accommodate the ‘new student’. Zepke & Leach (2005) advocated the increasingly diverse student body as the driving force for institutional change. The literature has regularly criticised HEIs for lack of understanding of non-traditional students’ learning requirements and circumstances (Gilardi & Guglielmetti 2011, Leathwood & O’Connell 2003, Roberts 2011, and Shields & Masardo 2015). The UK Commission for Employment & Skills (2010) identified a variety of recommendations in which HEIs could support the progression of an increasingly diverse student body. These included greater flexibility in study modes and groups to accommodate external commitments; increased knowledge within admissions; actively avoiding duplication in learning by taking prior learning into account; and the promotion of ‘seamless progression’ through the delivery of effective information and guidance (UKCES, 2010).

Although there is a vast amount of literature identifying the challenges facing non-traditional students within HE in relation to the widening participation agenda, there are infrequent reports of intervention and solutions, with even fewer reported as successful (Kettley, 2007; Mountford-Zimdars et al, 2015). A great extent of the literature focuses on transitions made by non-traditional students between FE and HE, and it would be valuable to extend that across the broader student journey at each stage. This can be explored by working closely with local FEIs and gaining insight into the expectation, motivations, barriers, and challenges faced by student in their transition. As highlighted by Kahu (2013) and Devlin (2009), longitudinal research is required to evaluate sustained evidence as the lack of research and evidence impacts on effective decision-making and policy implementation. By seeking outreach opportunities with the identified local FEIs, we can explore the expectations and barriers faced by students who are within the decision making process. Understanding the student expectations of HE before they make a decision on whether join a degree programme will allow expectations to managed, and enable the FE students to make informed decisions on their education.

The research being undertaken at Manchester Metropolitan University within the Faculty of Business and Law focuses on the unique body of students and thus heightened challenges within the award gap, compared to that of the wider university. In addition, the shared insights and best practice taking place through the NWAGG highlights the requirement for an open and collegiate and focused approach across Business Schools to further understand the challenges that are directly affecting the body of students.

By Dr Hannah Holmes, Head of Accounting, Finance and Banking Department, and Freya Ernsting, Research Associate, Manchester Metropolitan University



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