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Addressing the wicked problem of the award gaps amongst ethnic minorities students in HEIs

A person hiding behind a pile of books

Higher education institutions (HEIs) have been recognised as sites of reproduction of social, economic and health inequalities (Zulfiqar & Prasad, 2021). The risk of perpetuating racial stratification in students has been identified as one of the means of reproducing inequalities (Espinosa and Mitchell, 2020).

The award gap that minoritised ethnic students experience is an example. But is there anything we could do? Our research would be our step towards developing intellectual activism to hopefully impact the context of HEIs about the risk of perpetuating racial stratification in students.

We conducted a systematic literature review to examine interventions developed and implemented to address the minoritised ethnic students’ award gap in different HEIs. After downloading more than 9000 papers, only 54 articles were included and analysed when we applied inclusion and exclusion criteria. To be included articles had to explore and evaluate interventions to reduce the award gap, through the use of primary data and they needed to be written in English.

You might be surprised by the results of our study.  

Our findings show that only two papers that focused on interventions were identified from Management and Business Schools (de Sousa et al., 2021; Miller-Cotto & Schunn, 2020) which are significantly fewer compared to other disciplines.

Most papers analysed initiatives directed at students, focusing on addressing individual barriers and promoting what has been named remedial programmes. Only eight papers explored initiatives to change course contents, pedagogical approach or institutional culture, therefore aiming at addressing the systemic level issues.

In terms of outcomes, most studies included in the review highlighted a positive impact on improving grades and increasing the retention and completion rate of ethnic minority students, eventually leading to bridging the award gap. Some studies suggested improving skills, such as increasing knowledge and awareness of studying skills, making better use of interpersonal capabilities and advancing critical thinking skills.

Other research focused on students’ well-being outcomes, such as increasing self-confidence, improving engagement and improving a sense of inclusion.

We also identified four highly interconnected mechanisms that can be implemented to address the award gap:

  • First, the importance of a safe and comfortable space identified as cultural and validating the different identities was highlighted across most intervention typologies as particularly important for students and faculties. It was identified as a space where the challenges during college were normalised, fear was discussed, tailor-need responses were generated, and collaboration was implemented. But it worked two ways! A safe space was also important for staff to reflect upon their courses, better understand their teaching and practices and create knowledge synergies through collaboration. 
  • Second, very well connected with the safe space dynamics, collaboration, connection and socialisation development were often identified as fundamental dynamics across most intervention types. Through the development of social capital and bonding among peers or mentors, academic life was demystified, and emotional support was provided, building rapport and closeness that decreased students’ apprehension and fears.
  • Third, a sense of belonging and alignment with the institutions was identified as important to achieve favourable outcomes. Papers identified that ethnic minority students should feel an alignment between their courses and their life and values, alongside the need to be able to navigate the institutions’ landscapes in terms of cultural identity. 
  • Last but not least, the increasing agency and control of minoritised ethnic students over their future were identified and connected to the sense of belonging explored above. Interventions developed in the form of additional programme activities and changing course delivery supported an increasing transfer of control over the future to students, providing instruments to understand and eventually enter the academic world. So, perhaps there is hope to reduce the award gap after all.

You will not be surprised to read that all these mechanisms highlighted above come with costs and investments for HEIs, particularly if the aim is to counter the systemic cultural reproduction of racial inequalities. Our findings clearly showed how isolated interventions are not enough to deal with systemic racism within HEIs and society.

Therefore, universities should invest in holistic interventions that critically address systemic and ideological higher education contexts both in terms of faculties and courses alongside supporting initiatives directed to students, recognising the difference between surface-level attempts at equity and those that have profound and lasting impacts against systemic and ideological oppression. Long-term complex strategies, which include different interventions (and their evaluations), should be at the core of the upcoming universities’ strategies and investments.

We hope this blog will be a useful contribution to the discussion on reducing the ethnic minority award gap, and we look forward to your comments. Please contact


  • de Sousa, S., Fatilewa, O., & Mistry, T. (2021). Inclusive curriculum and BAME student advocacy in a business school: Reflections on three years of inclusive module reviews. Widening Participation & Lifelong Learning, 23(3), 48–56. ehh.
  • Espinosa, L. L., & Mitchell, T. (2020). The State of Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 52(2), 27–31.
  • Miller-Cotto, D., & Schunn, C. (2020). Mind the gap: How a large-scale course re-design in economics reduced performance gaps. Journal of Experimental Education. Scopus.
  • Zulfiqar, G., & Prasad, A. (2021). Challenging Social Inequality in the Global South: Class, Privilege, and Consciousness-Raising Through Critical Management Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 20(2), 156–181.


Dr Francesca Calo

Dr Francesca Calo

Dr Francesca Calo (PhD) is a Lecturer in Management at the Department of Public Leadership & Social Enterprise at The Open University, where she brings academic experience from posts held in the UK and Italy.

Prior to joining The Open University, she was a Post Doc Researcher at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, working as researcher and project manager at the EU (European Union) H2020 funded project SIRIUS (Skills and Integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in European Labour Markets) and a Research fellow at Bocconi University.

Dr Calo’s research expertise includes social enterprise and third sector organisation in health and social care, impact evaluation methods and social innovation.

Dr Isidora Kourti

Dr Isidora Kourti

Dr Isidora Kourti is a Lecturer in Management at The Open University Business School since 2017. Prior to this, Isidora was a Senior Lecturer at Regent’s University London and an Associate lecturer at the London School of Economics (LSE), where she completed her PhD in Organisational and Social Psychology.

Isidora’s current research focuses on organisational and inter-organisational settings and has led several research projects exploring issues, such as identity development, traditional and emergent working designs, working spaces and paradoxes, and looking at their theoretical and practical implications for the management of organisations and collaborative work.

Dr Aqueel Wahga

Dr Aqueel Wahga

Aqueel Wahga is a Lecturer in Management at The Open University Business School.

Dr Wahga’s research interests broadly relate to enterprise education, entrepreneurship, enterprise development, enterprise policy, environmental sustainability and innovation.

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Fulvio Scognamiglio

Fulvio Scognamiglio is a PhD student in management at the Open University Business School.

Mr Scognamiglio’s research interests broadly relate to public management, circular economy, social innovation.

Gizem Kutlu

Gizem Kutlu

Gizem Kutlu is a Lecturer in Management at Coventry University.

Mrs Kutlu’s research interests broadly relate to gender and environmental entrepreneurship, sustainable entrepreneurship and tourism enterprises.

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