Sometimes it’s the subject subcultures that really matter in a university

When providers are asked to think about access and participation, and when data sets are published on the subject, we are almost always invited to reflect on provider level numbers.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That makes sense – the regulation works at provider level, and there are some significant differences by provider even when complex benchmarks are applied.

But it means that more often than not, we’re missing what’s going on at subject level.

That matters for the “professions”, because students studying for three years on a Business Studies degree don’t tend to enter the medical profession. Similarly, those slogging away at a BSC in Media Studies don’t tend to become barristers.

It also matters from harassment and sexual misconduct perspective. We might reasonably assume that a Black student facing racist bullying on a programme where they are part of the one per cent will find it significantly harder to raise a complaint than if they were part of a fifty percent.

It matters too because it might just be the case that universities who have been making progress on access and participation have been doing so in easier-to-do-so subjects than others – and the tyranny of chasing the target can mean that some departments can end up “carrying” the rest of the institution.

And it brings some meaning to ethnicity awarding gaps – which makes less sense when you’re combining into a single institutional score degrees who calculate final classifications in different ways, partly because of the demands of external accrediting bodies.

Crucially, each year when I read the SAES survey report, I often find myself looking at a section on a student characteristic and thinking “ah, well that’s more about the sort of subject that group is likely to be studying” – where the speculation can prevent more meaningful action to address the highlighted issue, precisely because we may need to target efforts on subject areas rather than student characteristic per se.

Come again? Well, if some student characteristics are (for example) heavily concentred in some subjects and sparsely sprinkled in others across a university, the kind of granular action to address barriers to success are likely to be hard to prioritise in the sparsely sprinkled areas – partly because many of the ways in which students succeed or fail are related to the mix of students around them.

And anyway, there’s no point a large university patting itself on the back over social class or disability or ethnicity if none of its lawyers or dentists or whatever are in those categories. The danger is that large universities end up resembling a collection of schools in a town – grammar schools for the professions, and secondary moderns for other subjects.

As such a brief look at diversity in each of the HECOS areas in the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey is fascinating.

If we looked, say, at private schools, the scores are 14 per cent of health students, 10 per cent of STEM students, 7 per cent of social sciences and 6 per cent of arts and humanities. That hides even bigger differences at subject level – 22 per cent of Medicine and Dentistry students are from private schools in the sample, 5 per cent of Language and Area Studies and Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, and 3 per cent in Education and teaching.

Alternatively, if we look at the UK’s LBG+ full time undergrads, we see that just 13 per cent of Medicine and Dentistry students define in that way – with Language and Area Studies on 37 per cent, Engineering and Technology on 10 per cent and Law on 18 per cent.

You might glance across at Disabled students – 9 per cent of Mathematical Sciences, 6 per cent of Engineering and Technology students, 12 per cent of Law students but 30 per cent of Creative Arts and Design students.

Or maybe a look at ethnicity – Medicine and Dentistry on 33 per cent hides that within that, 22 per cent are Asian. Just 4 per cent of Veterinary Sciences students and 5 per cent of Agriculture, Food and related studies are BAME.

I’ve not included detailed plots here for all sorts of reasons – this is a one year weighted polling sample that includes international students, and so it’s not as if we ought to be basing conclusions or national policy initiatives on the results.

And anyway, both HESA and the Advance HE annual Equality in Higher Education reports have much better data on the formal protected characteristics.

What it does do is remind us that so much of the student experience is subject specific – and even bringing together groups of students impacted by risks to equality of opportunity can be meaningless unless we’ve thought carefully about the subject mix of the group that turned up the focus group.

I get that publishing dashboards at subject level for individual providers will end up looking odd in many cases – but surely regulators should be expecting providers to reflect both on institutional performance and subject-level performance when developing plans to make HE fairer?

And once you hit a certain size, I can make a decent argument that even if the regulator in your nation doesn’t require you to, universities really ought to be asking large subject areas to be developing their own access and participation plans for the agenda to have any real impact or meaning outside of the central working group creating the plan.

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