Aston University named Guardian’s university of the year | Education

Aston University has been crowned university of the year in the Guardian’s annual awards for its work eradicating the gap in grades between black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students and their white peers, as well as its emphasis on sustainability.

In a year during which UK universities have faced unprecedented challenges moving their curriculums online and following government advice to bring students on to campus, excellent work has continued. This award celebrates universities that focus on giving opportunities to all of their students, regardless of their background.

Now in its second year, the award is calculated on the basis of several measures, including performance and improvement in the Guardian league tables; how well universities retain students who come from areas of low participation in higher education; and whether black, Asian and minority ethnic students do as well as their white peers.

“As a university with the highest percentage of BAME students in the country (68%), we’ve had a commitment to ensuring that all our students get equal opportunities and that’s not just about admitting them, it’s also about ensuring they’re supported to remain at the university and get good results,” says Professor Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University.

Cameron highlights the university’s unusual obligatory placement year as key to this strategy. The placement year has been shown to improve grades for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as narrowing the gap in grades between BAME students and their white peers. It also reinforces the university’s emphasis on courses that lead to professions, including in business, engineering and health, which are especially popular with Aston’s students.

“These are the areas our students come to do degrees in – they’re aspiring to achieve opportunities that weren’t available to their parents,” he says. “They might not have had some of the academic opportunities prior to coming to university that students elsewhere in the country might have received, but they come with ambition, aspiration and commitment. They work hard and get great outcomes.”

Aston’s performance was strengthened by its rise up the Guardian league tables, which focus on the university activities that matter most to young people: quality of teaching, student satisfaction and employability. In recent years the university has prioritised hiring extra teaching staff, which has boosted its staff-to-student ratio score.

Helen Higson, deputy vice-chancellor, says the university focused on staff with strong teaching qualifications and industry experience. “We recruited 200 extra academics at a time when lots of other institutions were retrenching on employment,” she says.

This year, for the first time, the award included the People & Planet sustainability ranking, in which Aston scored ninth. The university has just launched a new strategy aimed at reducing emissions and waste on campus, working with sustainable suppliers, and integrating the green agenda into all its courses and curriculums.

“This matters because it’s a global crisis, and we’re an organisation that can make an impact, so we need to make sure we work towards reducing our footprint,” says Andrew Bryers, energy, environment and sustainability manager at Aston. “Students see the climate crisis happening and it’s on their radar. They’re pressuring universities to finance themselves ethically, move away from fossil fuels, reuse and recycle.”

The Guardian award also gives bonus points for race charter awards; Athena Swan awards, which reflect gender balance; and Stonewall’s ranking of good practice on LGBT issues.

There were also 14 other winners across categories in the Guardian University Awards. The full list is below, with details of the projects linked.

Category winners

Buildings that inspire

Winner: Aston University
Runners-up: Kingston University, London School of Economics and Political Science

Business collaboration

Winner: University of Birmingham
Runners-up: Manchester Metropolitan University, Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey

Course design, retention and student outcomes

Winner: Manchester Metropolitan University
Runners-up: Coventry University, Kingston University

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Digital innovation
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Winner: University of Kent
Runners-up: University of Central Lancashire, Edinburgh Napier University

Employability and entrepreneurship

Winner: King’s College London
Runners-up: Sheffield Hallam University, University of Salford

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Internationalisation
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Winner: Coventry University
Runner-up: University of Plymouth

Marketing and comms campaign

Winner: King’s College London
Runners-up: University of Oxford, University of Reading

Research impact

Winner: The Open University
Runners-up: University of Manchester, University of Reading

Social and community impact

Winner: University of Derby
Runners-up: Edinburgh Napier, Imperial College London

Staff experience

Winner: University of Glasgow
Runners-up: The Open University, University of Bristol

Student experience

Winner: Sheffield Hallam University
Runners-up: Swansea University, The University of Edinburgh

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Sustainability
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Winner: University of Exeter
Runner-up: University of the West of Scotland

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Teaching excellence
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Winner: The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
Runners-up: Middlesex University, University of Huddersfield

Widening access and outreach

Winner: The Open University
Runners-up: University of Kent, University of Worcester

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