"I used the Hub counselling service here which is quite good."
Exploring multiculturalism, ethnic diversity and its importance in higher-level education, primarily at universities is an important modern-day topic in need of discussion.
The concept of people from all walks of life coming together to achieve their goals is certainly a pleasant one.
This concept is promoted by universities who more than ever, understand the importance of diversity in education and after university, in the world of employment.
Standing at the 34th position in the UK Ranking according to Complete University Guide 2020, Aston University is a renowned facility for higher education.
It is popular with British Asian students from South Asian communities as “43.68%” make up the population followed by “32%” ethnically White students.
While groups of Black or British Black students has not seen a major increase, the university is encouraging all aspects of BAME students to apply to study at the university.
DESIblitz interacted with a group of British BAME students from Aston University to gauge the issues they face, the support they receive and factors surrounding low BAME attainment.
Why Aston University?
Selecting the right university is certainly a daunting and difficult task. With unlimited options available, you must narrow down the right options and make the correct choice for your future.
As 17-year-olds, which most UK students are, this decision is a momentous task which requires the correct resources and information.
Upon speaking to this group of British BAME students, we realised convenience was a key factor in them deciding to attend Aston University.
Shabana, originally from Leicester, is studying medicine at Aston University. She explained why she chose this university. She said:
“For me, it was quite close to home but also for my course it fitted my application better so I had a higher chance of getting in here than I did in other medical schools.
“Also, when I came onto the campus it is quite a close and comfortable place to be.
“I’m from Leicester, I didn’t know anyone who came here.
“But I had done research about the close medical schools and what would be best for me for visiting home.”
Shanaz, who is studying business at Aston University said:
“I picked it because Aston business school is well-known. Also, the business course is the biggest course in the university and I knew a few people who studied here.
Despite initially feeling a lost and disheartened at university, Shanaz realised her decision to attend Aston was the right one. She explained:
“At first, I was very upset, but then coming here I think it was a good decision.
“Aston business school is well-connected with other businesses, companies and other universities as well. They have a very good network.
“I know someone who is studying business at another university and she is struggling in quite a few different ways. So, I’m glad that I came here.”
Interestingly, Laila, another medicine student at Aston University highlighted how the food was a major part of her decision. She said:
“For me, this may sound silly but it was the food. I’m from Luton, so my choices were in London but there was not much diversity and access to places I wanted to go.”
After attending an open day at Aston University, Laila was drawn to more towards the university. She said:
“When I came here for the open evening, I really liked the environment, it was comfortable with a lot of diverse ethnic groups and good food.
“The staff from the medical school all seemed dedicated, especially because we are a small cohort.”
“They know everyone by name, it’s a tighter community compared to other universities with 5000 students in one building.”
Sharing a similar experience, psychology student Yahya also attended an open day. He said:
“I chose Aston because when I visited it on the open day, I liked the size of it. It’s a compact university, I’m a lazy guy so that fit the criteria.
“Also, because I wanted a distance away from home that was good enough to give an excuse not to visit every now and then, but also close enough in an emergency I had the assistance if I needed it.”
When being asked about diversity concerns on campus, this group of BAME students revealed they faced more hostility in their home towns as opposed to university.
Laila explained how in her home city of Luton, there are areas which she feels are racist. She said:
“In Luton where I’m from there are areas which are very racist but I’ve never had any negative experience. One of my problems was living out here.
“My parents would rather me stay out here than commute but I had to check whether they had all-girls accommodation and the requirements.
“It wasn’t readily available it was only after I started my contract that I realised I could choose my preferences.”
Similarly, Shanaz also felt there are“hotbeds” of racist areas in Walsall, however, Aston University was a diverse experience. She said:
“I’m from Walsall so I commute. Where I’m from there are hotbeds of majority South Asian people like Indians, Bengalis, Pakistanis but then there are areas that are local where it is just ethnically white people.
“They can be racist. Coming to Aston, it was very diverse especially my course. Also, there is a lot of hijabis.”
“I don’t think there is a problem with inclusivity or diversity. I don’t feel like when I walk into a room here, I think I am the only hijabi or coloured person.”
On the other hand, for Shabana, upon studying at Aston University she was not exposed to much diversity. She said:
“I think where I am from in Leicester is diverse but I am not very cultural.
“Coming here, because there are many Asian people, I feel like I’ve embraced it more and learnt more about it here than I did at home.”
Laila further added:
“It’s nice we like speaking in Urdu and bringing culture into daily life. It’s nice that you get that here because you can easily enjoy the same humour with people around you.”
Shanaz chimed in saying:
“It’s nice learning about other cultures as well and they’re proud of where they’re from.”
Yahya continued to mention the great diversity which Aston University can pride itself on. He said:
“I can testify that the university is inclusive regardless of what aspect of diversity you are looking at in terms of BAME. And it’s definitely something the university can be proud of.
“One of the other reasons I chose Aston was because doing psychology I’m a minority in the sense that I’m a male.
“Even more of a minority that I’m a brown male. It has never been something that is an issue.”
University Services and Resources
In addition to the academic course provided by universities, it is important for universities to further support their students.
To expand on their work experience, Aston University allows its student to study abroad in a scheme set by the university.
Speaking about this study abroad opportunity, Shanaz said:
“Aston provides a study abroad. They have a list of universities around the world. You get to apply to study there as part of an exchange programme.
“Aston sends its student to these universities and we also accept their students into Aston. Aston pays for the other students to come here and those universities pay for us to go there.
“My tuition fees for the American university should be £66,000 (for one year) but the American university is paying for it.
“A lot of universities don’t offer that and if they do they’re not interconnected. We’ve for partners in Europe, Japan, China, Australia, America.”
Yahya, who was unable to go abroad for his study said:
“The business school at Aston has the most options among all the students in the university. When I was looking at placements I did want to study abroad.
“Australia was where I wanted to go but as a Psychology student, I was limited to a potential of one out of three options.”
For the medical school, Shabana revealed: “Everyone got iPads and Apple Pencils. We need it to study.”
Another important service Aston University has in place is offering scholarships to students. Laila said:
“One thing I benefitted from was they do a lot of scholarships. They look at people from widening participation areas.
“I ended up getting my grades so I didn’t need to but it was good to have the opportunity.
“I come from a low achieving school. In my high school, the main priority was getting people to pass.”
Shabana further added:
“The medical school allows people from different backgrounds to come and study.
“They are so diverse in where you come from. Anyone from any background can apply here.”
What can Aston do better?
As well as the positive aspects of Aston University, there is always room for improvement.
This group of BAME students highlighted two aspects – more opportunities for other schools and the importance of interactions.
Having mentioned the great connections the business school has in place, Shanaz believes more could be done for other courses. She said:
“I think maybe the connections that are available to Aston Business School should be branched out.
“The universities they have connections with other courses as well so they should be able to get into contact and be able to open it up more.”
Laila went on to mention the need for more social events, especially for medical students. She said:
“For me, the university having more mixers between schools. I don’t get to meet many people from different schools.”
“It is so hard to go to societies. I wanted to go to the Islamic society and get involved in the charity weeks. But it clashes with everything.”
Agreeing with Laila, Shabana reinforced:
“Aston has everything to allow people to mix but for us (medical students) we don’t get the chance to join.
Adding to the discussion, Yahya suggested Student Union activities were the best solution for this.
“With psychology, we had the option in the second year to do cross-degree work and you get extra credit for that. The best bet for cross-school is the Student Union activities.”
Facing trouble at university whether, with your peers or a personal concern, it is normal and important to seek help. But where or who would you go to?
When asking this question to this group of BAME students they all said their “personal tutor” would be their first point of contact.
Shabana was struggling with adjusting to university life approached the Hub service. She said:
“I struggled with university a lot. So, I used the Hub counselling service here which is quite good.”
“But for me, it wasn’t enough. I was wrapped in cotton wool I attended a private school and then being launched into university was hard.”
Likewise, Laila found adjusting into university life rather troubling. She explained:
“Being from up north I had this barrier. I felt like I couldn’t connect with people enough.
“What helped was when I went to the SU prayer room and the girls were so lovely. It made me feel so warm inside. I felt disconnected but then I was able to connect with everyone.”
Shabana further added:
“It’s hard finding your feet. Everyone says that but going through it you realise. It took me the first three months to get used to being at university.”
Yahya continued to discuss the services Aston University have in place, however, they are not utilised by students because of their lack of knowledge.
“With Aston, I think they have a lot of services. But what I noticed being in the final year is that engagement with those services is always variable.
“First years are overloaded with a bunch of information. It took me a year to solidify a route to know if I had this issue to go to this person.
“The Student Union have a private party service which although I haven’t used personally, I have a lot of friends that can verify that they are a very good service.
“But settling all that information is difficult as a new university student. As you go from the transition from having a timetabled structure to all this time in the world a lot of students don’t know how to manage time.
“There is a stark difference between the students who do a placement and those who don’t do a placement.
Being a student representative (rep), Yahya has noticed that students are unaware of many university concerns.
“I’m a student rep this year at Aston University and I deal directly with the student in my final year. We get the same types of complaints in terms of issues like the university strikes going on.
“The strikes are from the lecturers and it’s to do with the fact that the marketisation of the university means money is being cut from pensions and pay.
“So, lecturers are losing up to £120,000. It’s a really sad thing and not a lot of students understand why lecturers are striking.
“You have a lot of students coming in to complain. As student reps, we will take complaints forward but you need to understand why these are going on.”
Shanaz went on to mention that more must be done from the university to ensure students are made aware of such matters.
“I think Aston could explain what these strikes are because not a lot of students know and they are lashing out and getting angry saying, ‘No it’s not fair, we paid for this degree, why are they not turning up?’”
Low Attainment for BAME Students
Unfortunately, BAME students are associated with underachieving and as a result, are stigmatised.
However, why are BAME students achieving low grades? Is it entirely their fault or the fault of the university? Or does their family have a part to play?
Shanaz will be going on to studying abroad in the following academic year (2020/2021). Yet, she was met with opposition from extended family members because she was a female.
“I’m going to go abroad next year to study in America and a lot of people in my family asked why.
“But I said, ‘Why can’t I do that? For business, it is much better to have that international experience.”
It appears Laila also faced a similar experience, this time in relation to her brothers.
“In terms of education, and this is not for all guys, but my brothers if they get bad grades then my dad was like, ‘Oh, he’ll play football’.
“But I would never have excuses like that. Usually, girls are studious, they will get the grades. When I got into medicine, people said to my mum, ‘You’re letting your daughter go so far away.’”
Laila continued to highlight how the BAME community previously used to place low expectations on their children.
“There is this standard set for them that is very low. They don’t push that much and we don’t have that many people in our families that can support us. I have one aunt who is a doctor abroad.”
Providing her input, Shanaz singled out how there is always a group of people who create a bad reputation for themselves.
“I think it’s because there is always ‘that group’ of Asian boys or Black boys and they’re not trying hard, or even girls.
“I think it’s because people don’t expect much from them. When they’re in a group, they act very immaturely.”
“They make a bad reputation for themselves and people associate with that.”
“If we see that then teaching staff do see it too and they won’t bother with people like that.”
However, Shabana pointed out how times have changed and parents are pushing their children to aim higher.
“In my immediate family I didn’t have, ‘Oh, because you’re a girl you don’t have to do as well’ for me, it was ‘Be the best you can be.’
“But my cousins were like, ‘She just needs to pass and when she’s twenty-something she will get married. You would be surprised but there is still that mindset.”
Shanaz added her views on this saying:
“Some girls are brainwashed into believing this.
“There is nothing wrong with getting married young but there are people that say, ‘We don’t need to do as well because that our backup.’
“Their life is automatically pushed in that direction. They just have to follow suit.”
Shanaz has noticed this kind of attitude from fellow students on her course.
“I can see that on my course and maybe they don’t have that drive and ambition and that’s why they don’t achieve as well.”
Shabana further mentioned:
“I also found the opposite. Instead of us not doing as well, we were pushed to do better.”
Recalling a conversation with her African friend, she said:
“I was talking to a friend of mine who is African and he was saying, ‘Our parents pushed us to do better because they came to this country and wanted to make a name for themselves.
“They’ve pushed us to be the best we can be to make a name for them and ourselves.”
According to Shanaz, she believes it is the attitudes of individuals who think they cannot achieve higher grades.
“The statistics do show that in general BAME do not do as well especially depend on the course.
“A lot of these people who aren’t achieving high grades it’s because they don’t think they can achieve high grades, or they don’t want to.
“It’s a strong learned helpless attitude.”
“At Aston, you don’t have that we don’t get called upon it. I think Aston could push students more.”
Reinforcing Shanaz’s point, Laila said:
“I think the university should have discussions with these people.”
Careers and Placement Team Support
Helping students achieve good results on their chosen degree course is one of the main purposes of universities. But what about supporting them in terms of seeking their careers?
We asked the students what the university careers team offers to help support them achieve their goals. Shanaz stated:
“I think our careers teams is one of the best in Birmingham for business.”
Shabana, who is a medicine student, “Our careers are predetermined.”
On the medicine course at Aston University, students are helped gain as much work experience as possible. Laila said:
“We get allocated placements but we don’t get to choose them. The connections that they have are really good. I got my GP placement in the city centre.”
Yahya, who used the placement team to help him find a work experience placement said:
“It has been relatively decent. I used them a lot in the second year because of placement hunting.
“On placement, they were in touch every now and then which was nice.
“I have heard a lot from friends who have had mixed experiences.
“I think Aston do have the opportunities there it’s just the matter of making it more salient to students.”
Aston University certainly has a multi-cultural society which allows BAME students to feel at ease and accepted compared to others.
According to the Complete University Guide 2020, Aston University’s employment rate stands at “79.2%.”
When it comes to choosing a university for students from a BAME background, Aston University is a very popular choice.
With its city centre location in Birmingham, it offers excellent access to transport, amenities and a local society which is enriched with people from diverse backgrounds, it is a home from home for many BAME students making it an ideal place to study.