Diversity Week: understanding the Asian student experience

Tuesday 16-03-2021 - 14:00

Disaggregating the BAME degree awarding gap: understanding and exploring the ‘Asian’ student experience.

Maisha Islam, Student Engagement Research and Projects Officer - University of Winchester

Megan Ball, Student Union President - Winchester Student Union


As a part of Diversity Week 2021, we’re celebrating the diversity in our student body and looking at ways we can all better support one another to be better allies and friends.

I spoke to Maisha, the Student Engagement Research and Projects Officer with the Centre for Student Engagement, about her experiences as both a student and staff member at Winchester and the research that she has done into the Asian Degree Awarding Gap.  

Hi Maisha, thank you so much for offering to be a part of Diversity Week 2021. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your experience at Winchester?

Hey Meg! Thanks so much for the invite to do this conversational blog – I really appreciate it! So, my journey at Winchester started in 2014. I was convinced I wanted to become a teacher by studying Primary Education, but my love of Sociology eventually trumped this! I then graduated with a first-class BA (Hons) degree in Sociology in 2017 and was fortunate enough to land a graduate internship working at the university’s Centre for Student Engagement. What should have been a three-month internship has turned into a three year+ job! But I’m definitely not complaining about that!

Even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time at Winchester and absolutely love working with university staff and students, there are challenges I have faced due to both my race and religion – being a South Asian hijabi woman. However, ever the optimist, I’m excited to work with the university and Winchester Student Union to improve the experiences of our Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and Muslim students.

So, you’re the Student Engagement Research and Projects Officer with the Centre for Student Engagement – can you tell us a bit about what that means?

Hella long job title, I know but I absolutely love it! So, there are lots of different ‘hats’ I wear within my role. This includes promoting and raising awareness of student engagement opportunities through the ‘Get Involved’ site and Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR). However, my most favourite ‘hat’ includes researching areas related to the strategic aims of the university. The Centre for Student Engagement is essentially the space in which myself and my team house our academic research and knowledge exchange services.

My first big project in this role involved researching and getting to know our Asian students (i.e. those coming from Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Chinese backgrounds) and their university experiences as we noted large degree-awarding gaps between them and their White peers in 2017/18 - this is the difference in these students receiving a 2:1 or first-class honours degree when graduating.

And as a part of this, you’ve co-written the Asian Student Experience Report! What are the thoughts behind this report?

It’s really lovely to have this research out there – we started collecting data through online questionnaires and focus groups in February 2020. We were lucky enough to just miss the start of the pandemic! I suppose the main thoughts behind the report show that when looking at our BAME students, whether it be their day-to-day experiences or wider issues like the degree-awarding gap, it’s really not helpful to use the umbrella term ‘BAME’ to group together a whole diversity of student groups. The students that are used under this term are inherently different and so we should seek to know them more as individuals rather than a homogeneous group.

I explain it so much better in this blog I wrote for a higher education policy website, WonkHE!

I love your Wonkhe blog! You worked with students and staff from Winchester on this; what was the process like?

Yes! I was able to make use of one of Winchester’s student-staff partnership schemes (the Winchester Research Apprenticeship Programme) which enabled me to gain two paid student research partners. Isabella Valente (a then-final year History student) and Zuni Khan (a then-final year Law student) were absolutely integral to the project – from co-designing focus group questions to securing participants, I really couldn’t have done the project without them!

I was also able to work closely with senior members of staff (including the Director of Widening Participation and Head of Student Engagement and Employability) who were able to raise awareness of the research at the university. I also gained feedback about my report recommendations from spaces like our Race Equality Action Group (as you’ll know, Meg!).

The report is 52 pages of fantastic findings, analysis & recommendations. Can you sum up some of the main themes and views?

Thanks for those kind words, Meg! The snazzy pictures and diagrams make it this long, but I hope that doesn’t put anyone off from delving into the report! Here’s what I think are the main takeaways:

  • There is very little existing research looking specifically into the experiences of Asian students in higher education, often they can be a neglected student group that we haven’t paid much attention to.
  • For our Asian students, I found that aspects such as religion and family were really important parts which affected and influenced their student lives. For example, students relied on access to prayer spaces, or some would often take on heavy caring responsibilities towards their parents in addition to their student lives (e.g. driving parents to hospital appointments or act as translators on the daily).
  • At times, our Asian students have been made to feel that certain cultural values are abnormal and suggested their peers did not understand much about diverse cultures. This is compounded by the fact there is little at the university that acknowledged, celebrated or represented different Asian (and BAME) cultures.
  • Whilst many students had positive learning experiences, some students spoke of differential treatment they had received in the classroom such as always being picked upon to enlighten their peers about their racial and cultural backgrounds – a burdensome job!
  • Recommendations to improve our Asian students’ experiences are largely already underway but they provide suggestions for our campus culture; our work supporting access, success and progression in higher education; and our learning and teaching spaces.

And there is a whole section of the report dedicated to recommendations to the Student Union. We’re really driven to work with you, and our Asian students, to action as many of these as we can. What are your thoughts on the Student Union recommendations?

That’s really great to hear, Meg! Of course, the Student Union make up such an important part of the university and play a huge role in the lives of some of our students. Already, from sharing the findings of the report, Winchester Student Union have been able to support a newly-established Asian Students Network - a really great example of change occurring directly from the report!

Where representation was noted to be of big importance for our Asian students, I’d love to see this embedded in all the great work the Student Union does. This includes: the campaigns you choose to run which bring attention to issues such as Islamophobia; events and/or film nights celebrating the best of Bollywood. More widely, the issues that face our Asian (and BAME) students could be further highlighted when training our Student Academic Representatives and committee members of sports teams, societies and representational networks. Truly understanding the lived experiences of our Asian students and what racism and racial microaggressions can look like will enable us all to stake a claim in our goals of racial equality.

And finally, as the closing question, what do you think we truly need to do as a University community to ensure that students from all demographic backgrounds feel at home here? 

Excellent question, Meg! I’m proud to be a part of the Winchester community where many students from BAME backgrounds have spoken so positively about their experiences. However, it would be naive to think that this is the experience of all our students, and that despite this, alienation can still be felt.

I would say to our students that whilst larger level change can come from your university and Student Union, think about micro-actions you can start doing right now. For example, make the conscious decision to learn about different cultures; reflect on the small ways you could be inclusive of students that don’t look like you; and importantly, be an ally where you can! I love seeing our students (and staff) advocate on the behalf of individuals who don’t have as much privilege – the change we seek is one where we all need to play a role in!

Thank you again so much for having me, Meg! An absolute pleasure as always and keep up the amazing work!

It’s so great to speak to you Maisha, thank you so much for all of the work that you do – you’re an asset to Winchester!


The full report ‘Disaggregating the BAME degree awarding gap: understanding and exploring the ‘Asian’ student experience’, can be viewed here: https://issuu.com/theuniversityofwinchester/docs/08026_-_asian_degree_awarding_gap_brochure

You can follow Maisha on Twitter at @MaishaIslam_28

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