Understanding and taking action on postgraduate diversity

Louise Banahene sets out the case for insight, understanding and action over diversity in doctoral study

Louise Banahene is Director of Educational Engagement at the University of Leeds

There would be few across the higher education sector who would disagree with the imperative to widen access to, and success within, undergraduate study amongst under-represented groups.

It’s an approach grounded in a wealth of good practice, evidence and success stories. With a regulatory framework underpinning the work of higher education institutions, most institutions will have teams or roles focused on this. There are many organisations working alongside with a similar remit.

But the barriers continue into postgraduate study.

Masters and doctoral study are required for access to many professions. The diversity of our postgraduate population and their progression through it are vital in addressing diversity in academia.

As with access to, and success in, undergraduate study, there are many factors that influence the diversity of postgraduate students. Many are structural – like the offer rate to some groups of minoritised students, the likelihood of securing a scholarship or other sources of funding, the range of study modes available and more.

Research from the Sutton Trust and The Broken Pipeline report highlights recommendations and areas for change – and yet they haven’t quite gained the traction for us to see meaningful progress.

Pipelines, leaks and joins

To address this, it is crucial that we connect up our work at undergraduate, taught postgraduate and doctoral level through overarching strategies. The degree-level awarding gap for minoritised groups such as Black students remains an issue. I know from our work at Leeds that this awarding gap continues at taught postgraduate level and we won’t be alone. The work to close these gaps is vital but while ever, as a sector, we view excellence at postgraduate level in a very narrow way, as first class honours or Distinction, we perpetuate the disadvantage and barriers.

Our institutional and sector data demonstrates this but I won’t be alone in having spoken of students who have rightly expressed their frustration in being able to access postgraduate study, their reluctance to engage with events or resources that assume that there is a deficit in understanding, their concern about entering a new institution or continuing in an institution where they have already experienced micro-aggressions or been impacted by the awarding gap.

UKRI/OfS funded projects will bring much needed insight and understanding of what is required to address diversity in doctoral study. We saw this with the OfS funded projects that addressed diversity at taught postgraduate study. We can already see emerging approaches to the admissions process, financial support and more. It’s the tip of an important iceberg. We must all enhance and evolve our environments so that projects lead to sustainable change, becoming embedded into our usual ways of working, and we must learn from not just what works but also what doesn’t.

We owe this to the current and future postgraduate students. We are rightly asking them to co-create this change with us but we have to demonstrate that this emotional burden, time and effort will lead to lasting change.

National work and coordination

The NEON postgraduate diversity group has brought together colleagues from across the sector with this common purpose of creating lasting change in postgraduate access and success. The diversity of the group – in roles, organisations represented, educational or career journey and geographical location – reinforces how important it is to work in partnership on this agenda.

We can work on institutional practice, research and collaborative projects but we must bring this together to learn from one another. We must amplify the voices of those who are minoritised, celebrate this diversity and acknowledge that we need to learn alongside those already in postgraduate study and those who are not.

The group has been working on a number of workstreams over the last few years, which have included QAA and JISC-funded projects on success and employability in postgraduate study. There is also a sub-group of ten institutions who will be implementing a consistent set of additional criteria into the application process to enhance the sector understanding of intersections of under-representation and application stage.

This has highlighted the benefit of working together and alongside students to agree criteria, and draw on expertise with experience of using contextual data in undergraduate admissions as well as the benefit of partnership to resolve the challenges of changing the structural processes that underpin such work.

This work has really strengthened our resolve to create a strategy blueprint for the sector. It has been shaped by our members who were able to reflect on the different stages of the journey for their organisation and has been influenced by the work of a student research intern, Penny Sucharitkul, who developed a literature review of work to address postgraduate diversity nationally and internationally.

Our strategy blueprint has nine recommendations relevant to sector organisations, higher education leaders and colleagues involved in widening access, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as well as graduate school, Centre for Doctoral Training and Doctoral Training Partnership managers. Not every recommendation will be relevant to each individual but by working together we will be able to make the required change. It’s the collective action that will make the difference, ensuring that development of postgraduate diversity strategies is prioritised, that we move away from a silo approach to consider progression through all levels of study, and that sufficient resources are allocated for both students and changes to organisational systems.

Crucially, it’s centring our students and the lived experience of those who are minoritised in our work. That includes financially recompensing students who support and help.

We are inviting colleagues to sign up to our pledge to work together to implement this strategy blueprint – and we will share good practice, learn from one another and collaborate through our regular meetings and conferences.

NEON will hold a postgraduate diversity symposium on Wednesday 13 July.

2 responses to “Understanding and taking action on postgraduate diversity

  1. “The awarding gap for minoritised groups such as Black students continues at postgraduate level. … Our institutional and sector data demonstrates this” – Does this data include International students? International students are 5-6 times more valuable as their fees are 5-6 times UK postgrad fees, and they make up the majority of postgrads in many disciplines; so postgrad diversity data shoulfd focus on International postgrad diversity, and not leave them out of the picture.

    1. Hi Eric, I agree with you about looking at international postgrad diversity as they do pay higher fees, although I’ve had a look and it’s not 5/6X more but depending on course usually 2-3X more (for example this course is only 2 X more: https://courses.leeds.ac.uk/f669/mathematics-msc#section3) . Also, I think there’s a need when looking at ethnic diversity to distinguish between International and home students. Even if we have a diverse student population, if this is mainly from international students then it doesn’t do nowt for UK home students. Often institutions hit the diversity quota by international recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds. For example, the FTSE 100 have met their diversity quotas but mainly from recruitment of BME individuals from overseas.

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