The impact of commuting and COVID-19 on assessment gaps at a London university

Page, Nigel and Forster-Wilkins, Gary (2022) The impact of commuting and COVID-19 on assessment gaps at a London university. In: Horizons in STEM Higher Education Conference : Making Connections, Innovating and Sharing Pedagogy; 29-30 Jun 2022, London, U.K.. (Unpublished)


The reasons for the observed national awarding gaps in HE are complex with numerous causes having been proposed. Some of the largest HE awarding gaps are seen in London (Closingthegap, 2019), where paradoxically there is higher attainment in secondary education amongst pupils from ethnic disadvantaged backgrounds (Ross et al, 2020). Post- 92 London institutions such as Kingston University attract a high percentage of these ethnic disadvantaged students from across London, where many choose to remain in the same home environment as at school. Nonetheless, these students once at university seem to fair less academically well than their white counterparts. Previously, we have identified significant differences between our ethnically diverse and white students in their commuting habits, where 75% of white students lived locally within 30 minutes of the campus compared to 40% ethnic students (Page et al. 2021). This leads to significantly longer and complex journeys for those commuting students creating significant time spent on travel adding extra stress and dissatisfaction. There has been little research to demonstrate the direct impact of commuting on individual attainment, BME awarding gaps and the impact of COVID-19 (when essentially most students could no longer commute to study). In our faculty of Science, Computing, and Engineering (n≈4000), we found pre-pandemic awarding gaps for both commuting and BME students (Asian, Black and mixed race). Commuting added its own premium irrespective of white or ethnic group suggesting commuting by itself had only marginal impact in contributing to existing BME awarding gaps. Nonetheless, by virtue of 70% of our students being BME, of which two thirds commute compared with 30% white of which only half commute, this contributed to nearly 10% of the existing BME awarding gap by simple virtual of the greater number of commuting BME students. The significant reduction in commuting through the COVID-19 pandemic led to convergence/alignment of attainment between commuting and non-commuting students in each ethnic group effectively removing or reducing the commuting attainment gap. However, this did not lead to any corresponding reduction in BME awarding gaps. A closer analysis of bioscience students using three-way intersectionality revealed lockdown benefitted white commuters (especially male) irrespective of index of mean deprivation (IMD) or age and young commuting Asian males. Whilst attainment for commuting ethnic groups was relatively unaffected by lockdown those classified previously as non-commuters were significantly affected especially Black students irrespective of gender, IMD or age. In conclusion, this study found commuting itself contributed marginally to the BME awarding gap excepting by virtue of having an overrepresented BME group, who were more likely to live at home and commute. There are clear benefits for non-commuting BME students in normal circumstances that were lost during lockdown as their performance became more closely aligned with their commuting counterparts. Irrespective of commuting or COVID-19, a substantive awarding gap still exists that remains complicated and likely impacted by a host of factors such as subject area and ratios of different ethnic groups on each course.

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