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Bridging the Gap: a student collective working towards academic equality

By Ludovica Longo, Politics and Geography 3rd year

Are you a student from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background at SOAS? Do you feel like you are not reaching your fullest potential due to circumstances that are out of your control? Bridging the gap may be able to provide exactly what you need. 

An issue cannot be solved until people are aware of its existence and agree upon its definition. Bridging the Gap is a project rooted in this assumption. More specifically, the project aims to create a safe space for BAME students to discuss issues they may otherwise think they are alone in facing.

The collective was founded in response to a study carried out by Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) under the leadership of Baroness Valerie Amos, ex Director of SOAS, and Amatey Doku, Vice President for Higher Education at NUS. The report found that students from BAME backgrounds are 13% less likely to achieve first-class degrees from UK universities, and additionally, academic achievements of UK citizens were higher than those of international students, whose language difficulties are often overlooked by universities.

A SOAS-based collective was therefore launched by current SU Co-President for Democracy and Education, Maxine Thomas-Asante, and Miranda Sheffield, and started in the Law Department during the 2018/19 school year as a forum in which black students (later expanded to BAME students) could explore and improve their experiences at the SOAS School of Law.

Racial minorities tend to be less likely to seek support therefore Bridging The Gap takes the role of bringing such support directly to those that may need it

During this pilot-year, Bridging the Gap successfully achieved its initial goal of gathering quantitative and qualitative data about the experiences of the BAME student body at SOAS, which confirmed the racially implicated nature of the attainment gap in the UK.

Gavin Alexander, a second year History and IR student leading the project this year, along with Luena Gama, a law student, took on the task of exploring issues of racial inequalities within SOAS to gain an insight into what tools students coming from minority backgrounds may need in order to succeed. ‘Policies such as anonymous marking are clearly not enough,’ said Alexander to the Spirit, ‘Much more structural solutions have to be implemented’. 

‘A general misconception, which Bridging the Gap aims correct, may lead someone to think their failure to achieve excellent results to be caused by insufficient effort,’ Luena explains. This misconception neglects ‘a whole range of factors which may have led [a student] to have access to less support than other members of the student body.’ The attainment gap helps bring attention to many background factors, such as financial struggles, health issues, and previous educational experiences, which are usually left out of the picture when looking at university statistical data and portraying the student experience in university.

The project ran focus groups last year, which will continue this year, to raise awareness of the significant attainment gap, to help contextualise the difficulties BAME students face, and to ultimately provide students with the tools needed to balance whatever difficulties they are going through. In addition, the group has organized therapy sessions which are scheduled to begin in December. The collective’s leaders are optimistic that these will be cathartic opportunities for students to share and learn from struggles they have been experiencing with one another, and this will also give the project an idea of which issues and resources should be prioritised. 

‘It’s not that you’re not doing enough. There are all these other issues at play that you need to take into account,’ says Luena, who personally benefited from the project last year during her leave of absence. Knowing that someone from the same or a similar background is going through the same struggle as you is essential and motivating. And if they managed to overcome it, so can you,’ she added.

The existence of this project is linked to the failure of institutions in making sure all students have the same access to opportunities for being successful students. This means that institutions are responsible for mitigating against factors that prevent certain demographics of students, BAME students for example, of having the same opportunity to succeed and excel in their studies. Additionally, universities are expected to take into account circumstances that may hinder someone from being able to succeed, or from taking advantage of the services offered that enable success. Racial minorities are less likely to seek support resources. Bridging the Gap aims to bring support directly to those who need it at SOAS. 

To achieve increased awareness about the wide range of intersectionalities that affect the experience of BAME students in university, there must be more open conversation and debate about how to improve services and resources. Bridge the Gap has been successful in sparking and providing the space for such conversations, and they continue to explore the goal of ensuring that academic prospects of BAME students are not diminished by economic and social inequalities that were created by racism and continue to be embedded into institutions.

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