The Royal Society published an article in March 2021 discussing why the STEM sector must step up and end unacceptable disparities in BAME students and staff academic progression and success [1].

It should be noted that there are some challenges when using homogenising language such as BAME. The NUS [2] have recommended that universities disaggregate student ethnicity data, where student populations allow for this.

The Royal Society highlighted:

  • Poorer degree outcomes and lower rates of academic career progression for people from Black backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) higher education
  • Higher non-completion rates among Black STEM students – in 2017/18, the non-completion rate among Black STEM first degree students was 4.7% and 6.3% among postgraduates. This compared to undergraduate and postgraduate dropout rates of 2.9% and 4.4% for Asian students, and 2.7% and 3.8% for white students.
  • Disparities in degree outcomes for Black students – white students in 2018/19 were twice as likely as Black students to graduate with first class honours – 35.7% compared to 17.9%. Black students were roughly three times more likely than white students to complete undergrad with a third class degree – 9.5% of Black students compared to 3.2%. 
  • Variation in progression through STEM study and careers across ethnicity groups – In 2018/19, 18.7% of academic staff in STEM were from ethnic minority groups, 13.2% were Asian compared to 1.7% who were Black. This is a pronounced drop off from postgraduate studies, where 7.1% of entrants are Black and 11.9% are Asian.

Additionally, the Royal Academy of Engineering reports [3]:

7.8%

Of UK engineers are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background

85%

Of those reported assumptions are made about them based on their ethnicity or nationality

The Journey to STEM

Charlotte Ajomale-Evans, Chair for the Swansea University BAME Student in Engineering Network [5], discusses what Swansea look for when admitting students to university who aspire to study STEM.

They look to see whether the candidate has:

  • GCSE’s in the correct subjects with strong grades
  • A-Levels or equivalent in the correct subjects with strong grades
  • A well-written personal statement that shows experience
  • Extra-Curricular Activities that show a range of interests related to the course and a unique skillset
  • Interest in the subject

For students to have all these things, there should have been strong guidance around GCSE age to assist them in securing the things needed for STEM at university. System awareness is crucial for a student to know the bureaucratic stages of getting into university.

Some students will have completed prior work experience related to their desired subject before applying which will always strengthen their admission application.

The BAME Journey to STEM

Charlotte offers two BAME students at Swansea University as case studies, explaining the challenges they faced when embarking on a journey into STEM.

Modupe is a Chemical Engineering student from Suffolk and Nigeria and Kezia is a Medical Engineering student from London, with Congolese parents.

Both students discussed their experiences during their GCSEs and A-Levels. Modupe said that growing up in a predominantly white area in Suffolk, they experienced covert racism from their peers. Kezia didn’t struggle so much as they grew up in a more diverse area of London. Modupe noted that they struggled to reach their full potential during their GCSEs, due to the covert racism they experienced.

Writing a personal statement can also be a barrier when applying to STEM at university. Language and translation can be difficult and many BAME students don’t get the same level of support as their white counterparts. However, bilingual students are often seen as impressive when this factor is included in their personal statements.

Kezia explains that they loved biology from an early age but during career guidance, prior to university they were pushed towards nursing and psychology. Additionally, support and guidance were lacking. Both students struggled to find role models from similar backgrounds in the engineering roles that they aspired to.

There are barriers to extra-curricular activities for BAME candidates. These are often felt during their years of education prior to university. Kezia speaks of financial concerns when they were growing up, and covert and overt racism that demotivated them when partaking in extra-curricular activities in STEM.

System understanding is difficult for those students and their families who are unaccustomed to the UK education system, particularly if they are new to the UK.

Charlotte has picked out some quotes from her conversations with Kezia and Modupe which highlight their experiences in education when pursuing STEM:

“I am the only black girl on my course”

They wouldn’t believe my solution until they checked it themselves”

“I hear people in my lecturers complaining that they can’t understand the lecturer’s accent”

“You don’t sound like your face”

“I was seen as disruptive and aggressive”

“I was put straight into lower set for maths”

Swansea BAME Students in Engineering Network

In 2019, the engineering faculty at Swansea University, a female and black postdoc student flagged up disparities in the faculty. They noticed differences in the representation and treatment of staff and students in relation to race.

The student set up the BAME Students in Engineering Network and in summer 2021 Charlotte became the chair. The College of Engineering is committed to creating a supportive and inclusive working environment for all staff and students, whereby all people can reach their full potential.

They received the Athena Silver Award in October 2019, recognising their work towards improving diversity and inclusivity in education.

The network aims to raise awareness of the importance of conversations on race. The network has been a great success and it strives to help BAME students avoid feelings of isolation, through rallied support and connection building.

The network has three streams:

  • To educate the white majority
  • To empower those from minority ethnic backgrounds
  • To drive change in the students and within the wider faculty

The streams aim to:

  • Provide safe spaces for students and staff to talk about their experiences, both inside and outside of the university
  • Hold the department, academics, support staff and other students’ accountable for any racist treatment
  • Host events to empower BAME individuals in engineering and the professional world
  • Offer focus groups to help investigate the problems surrounding racial barriers and discrimination in the department
  • Run schemes to encourage progression, both professional and academic
  • Organising socials to celebrate diversity

The network has also developed sessions for non-BAME students to become passionate about equality and tackling racism:

  • Listening events – these are opportunities to hear experiences directly from others of how racism has impacted their lives
  • Webinars and workshops – to learn about how to become a better advocate to the anti-racist movement
  • Socials – where people can learn from and about others in a social setting
  • Events –monthly events with speakers covering a range of topics
  • Book club –  a ‘BAME Book Club’ where articles, books and papers around race in engineering, and race in wider society are discussed
  • Focus groups – sharing experiences to help improve departmental knowledge around issues facing student and staff teams

[1] The Royal Society. 2021. STEM sector must step up and end unacceptable disparities in Black staff and students’ academic progression and success

[2] The National Union of Students. 2019. BLACK, ASIAN AND MINORITY ETHNIC STUDENT ATTAINMENT AT UK UNIVERSITIES: #CLOSINGTHEGAP

[3] The Royal Academy of Engineering. 2021. Celebrating leading minority ethnic engineers

[4] State of Engineering Report. 2018 [5] Ajomale-Evans, Charlotte. 2021. Swansea University BAME Student in Engineering Network

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Charlotte Ajomale-Evans is Chair of the Swansea University BAME Students in Engineering Network. She discussed with us the challenges facing BAME students taking STEM university courses.

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