Black students aren’t getting funded PhDs. Who’s responsible for fixing that?

Universities are signing up to the Race Equality Charter, Building the Anti-Racist Classroom is developing anti-racist pedagogy, and HEPI recently published a series of essays on reducing racial inequality. But access and participation plans mean that universities are mostly focusing on Black and ethnic minority attainment gaps at undergraduate level.

In comparison, a recent report written by Paulette Williams, Sukhi Bath, Jason Arday and Chantelle Lewis of Leading Routes takes a closer look at the pipeline to postgraduate study. “The Broken Pipeline” specifically explores the barriers to accessing research council funding.

What we know and what it means

The report starts with some well-known data: funded PhD students are likely to have first class degrees from research intensive institutions, information collection is patchy, PhD application processes vary wildly from institution to institution, and the process of selecting a PhD supervisor, as well as the supervisory relationship, is riddled with the potential for bias. There is also, the report claims, an inflexible definition of academic “excellence” driving admissions processes, which, despite sounding all-encompassing, often focuses almost exclusively on prior attainment and previous institution.

And these criteria contribute to keeping Black students from funded PhD places. Black students are less likely to have first or upper second class degrees, and are more likely to attend post-92 universities, meaning that most universities have a definition of excellence which could be considered discriminatory, and could be hindering latent postgraduate access efforts. Indeed, the report shares the startling result of a freedom of information request to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI): over the last three academic years, of the total 19,868 PhD studentships collectively awarded by research councils, 245, or 1.2 per cent were awarded to Black students or Black mixed students, with only 30 of those from Black Caribbean backgrounds.

What we can do

The report’s recommendations are broad and helpful, and include the need to improve national data collection processes, explore the application experience for Black students and examine whether there’s a postgraduate taught attainment gap for Black students. The report also recommends defining excellence more broadly, diversifying PhD interview panels, paid internships for applicants, positive action in the form of ring-fenced funding for Black PhD students, and the introduction of PhD supervisory teams, to ensure that Black researchers can work with a range of different academics during their course, reducing the dependence on one supervisor and the resultant impact of potential bias.

Universities are urged to issue clear guidance and make application processes transparent for all applicants, and to define internally who owns admissions processes, in order to clarify who can effect change. At the moment, responsibility shifts between institutions and research councils, meaning any impetus for change gets lost.

The changing shape of a PhD

Some of the authors’ recommendations address ingrained and arguably old-fashioned parts of the postgraduate application process and research degree: for example, excellence meaning a first-class degree from a research intensive university. At undergraduate level, admissions teams work hard to limit the privilege accrued by private school students; in comparison, at postgraduate level, going to the universities of Bristol or Durham might be your ticket to a funded PhD.

Equally, there’s still an assumption in some quarters that a research degree is an apprenticeship: you study under one master, and you’re dependent on that person for everything. In a more open, mobile research landscape where people with PhDs move to think tanks and the civil service, and to tech companies and consultancies, is a research degree still an apprenticeship requiring a single all-knowing master? Not only would supervisory teams be beneficial in reducing the potential impact of racial, class or gender bias, but moving towards that model would help students understand a wider range of career paths, and access a wider range of career advice.

Ultimately, the report’s recommendations are wide-ranging and encompass the Black postgraduate experience, as well as the admissions process. The report acknowledges that access is about more than funding, and that change is operational and structural (who owns admissions changes), as well as flashy and outward-facing.

Who’s responsible for postgraduate access?

But it’s unclear who’s responsible for postgraduate access work, as the report highlights, which means that it’s difficult to set a clear, shared agenda for the sector. Institutions are responsible for managing supervisors, but research councils provide researcher training. Bodies like UKRI and the Office for Students (OfS) are, notionally, responsible for data collection and looking more strategically at the postgraduate landscape. At the moment, the conversation around fairer access to research degrees is mostly happening in pockets – for example at University College London or in UK Council for Graduate Education workshops.

Postgraduate access work is also often absorbed by students’ unions and students. For example, the report mentions that some scholarship programmes for Black and ethnic minority students require applicants to write an essay about overcoming resilience, or similar, which might offer an opportunity for applicants to share important stories, but also requires extra work – and puts the focus on individuals overcoming racism, rather than structures or cultures changing.

The responsibility for postgraduate students more broadly seems to fall somewhere between UKRI and OfS, or the Scottish and Welsh funding councils. Yet there is scope for more joined-up thinking. UKRI could collect data on where postgraduate students come from and post-degree destination, and though there is no statutory requirement in any part of the UK to include postgraduate students in access regulation, good practice and guidance could be published to encourage institutions to take steps on a voluntary basis. If the pipeline is broken, and it seems to be, and in the absence of a named entity with responsibility for fixing it, it’s time for organisations and institutions to step forward, not back.

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