Inside Track - Professor Tom Ward: Making inclusion work for all

At the heart of the mission of the University of Leeds is the desire to see all students realise their potential.


We see the impact of this effort and commitment throughout the student journey, from applicant, to graduation, to future career. Despite the depth of this desire, we know that we can always do more to enable students from diverse backgrounds to succeed in their studies and move into the career of their choice.

Research at Leeds and across the sector has shown that there is a particular gap between potential and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students – and particularly for Black students - who at undergraduate level are less likely to be awarded a first or upper second class honours than the average. 

At Leeds we are intensely focused on closing this gap and others related to inequality through taking evidence-based action that builds on our longstanding commitment to widening access and participation, and to improving success among and between various groups, including BAME and White students.

Research – to fully understand the issues and to inform strategy and action – is essential, and has shown us that many factors may be at play in preventing BAME students from achieving the academic success they deserve, including: 

  • Internal factors, such as feelings of isolation or alienation and lack of belonging; 
  • Lack of awareness of BAME issues or perspectives in the wider community; 
  • Students’ expectations of themselves; 
  • Lack of BAME role models and insufficient diversity among staff. 

External factors may also include social disadvantage and lack of social and cultural capital, difficulties with access to available Information (and the quality of that information), and advice and guidance to inform decisions on course and institution.

Our new Access and Participation Plan is the cornerstone of our educational engagement work. Approved by the Office for Students, it commits the University of Leeds to closing the gap among all BAME students from 12.7% in 2017/18 to 5.5% in 2024/25. 

This is a huge challenge, but, working in partnership with students, it is one that I know we will all rise to. It will, however, take a “whole institution” approach if we are to succeed.

Head of Educational Engagement, Louise Banahene, is guiding our work, alongside Abiha Khan (LUU Education Officer), Paul Taylor (Pro-Dean from the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences) and Nina Wardleworth (Academic Lead for Student Success.) Immediate priorities include:

  • Leadership and ownership at all levels with a clear focus on the issue; 
  • Space for staff to discuss race and how it impacts on the experience of studying at the University, the cultures across the campus, and the awarding gaps; 
  • Inclusive approaches to the curriculum and development of our institutional understanding of the barriers that some students face. 

We all have a role to play, and the following questions may be useful in continuing the conversations needed in every school, division, faculty and service:

  1. Do you know the gaps in student success across the faculty, school or programme?
  2. Is there opportunity for all staff and students to regularly discuss gaps, students’ experience and how this can impact on the awarding gap?
  3. Is there an opportunity for BAME students, and other under-represented groups, to share their perspectives on their course content and assessment in relation to their own background?

Critically, we are also addressing the gap between White and BAME students in progression to postgraduate study through leading a research project in the area. Funded by the Office for Students, and in partnership with the universities of Manchester, Sheffield, Warwick and York, the study trialled the design, delivery and evaluation of non-financial interventions aiming to support progression to, and success in, taught postgraduate study, and recognised the key role of staff diversity. 

This kind of study is generally perceived as a ‘gateway’ to postgraduate research study, as well as to a range of careers. The results are available and further dissemination will follow. 

Enabling students from all backgrounds to succeed at Leeds is something that everyone who works here is committed to. Confronting the difficult fact that the awarding gap is so large here raises some challenging questions for all of us, but I am confident that as we learn from each other and our students we will be able to make real progress.

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