In recent years, Postgraduate diversity has come to the forefront of discussions in Higher Education, with data showing gaps in access and success, a broken pipeline into academia and with limited historic activity to redress the balance. Postgraduate research is inaccessible to many students and the data we do have showcases the extent of the problem, including the depressing statistic that only 1% of UK professors are Black. There is a clear need to do better in relation to Postgraduate diversity.
However, things are changing. With 13 projects recently funded as part of the OfS and UKRI call to improve access to postgraduate research projects for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students; the recent publication of the draft UKRI EDI strategy; and multiple collaborative efforts to work jointly across the sector, including the NEON Widening Participation in Postgraduate study network.
Time for change
In July 2022, the University of Leeds hosted a NEON Summit on this very topic, with input from a wide range of colleagues from across the sector. The event incorporated the launch of the new Postgraduate Strategy Blueprint and Pledge and acted as a platform to discuss the actions needed to bring about a shift in the sector.
The event was held face to face and it really did feel like the beginning of a new chapter. There were brilliant speakers including Gavin Doyle from Research England, Professor Jason Arday and Professor Paul Wakeling, and a wealth of research and practice was shared, as well as real insight from PhD students.
A haemorrhaging of talent
As put succinctly by Professor Jason Arday, there has been a “haemorrhaging of talent” at Postgraduate level, showcased by the “lost 300” – the professors who have been lost from the pipeline into research.
So what are some of the reasons for this? It’s a BIG question, but the opportunity to open up a dialogue on this topic, from both a student and staff perspective, was welcomed.
- Inaccessible application processes for high achieving non-Russell Group students
- Financial pressures which can impact on student wellbeing and PhD success
- Environments that are unwelcoming, particularly where there is a lack of diversity in students or lecturers
- A need to understand and support students from demographics who continue to be under-represented, including care experienced students
Students also referenced the weight they often feel in driving forward diversity related work, with a real impact on their studies and their wellbeing. Universities need to consider this carefully and think about how they work with students, whilst also being mindful of the negative impact this can sometimes have on individuals.
The importance of data
Too many talks mentioned data to not reference the elephant in the room that currently exists. The data gaps at Postgraduate level often hamper the ability to both understand the landscape fully, and to implement change.
Gavin Doyle was just one of the speakers who highlighted these gaps, including around ethnicity and socioeconomic status data, and the importance of improving the collection, analysis and visibility of this data.
Innovation happening right before our eyes
But it’s not all bad news. Within breakout sessions, a varied range of colleagues showcased some of the brilliant activity already happening in this area, with an overarching aim of improving access and success at postgraduate level. Examples included:
- Oxford University’s innovative UNIQ+ programme
- Rachel Van Krimpen’s work at the University of Nottingham to embed EDI into a Doctoral Training Programme
- A Careers-led project to understand the diversity in planning needs for Masters students
Returning to data, and eight institutions are participating in a collaborative project to add new questions into application forms. This will start to give an insight into the application pipeline against a wide variety of demographic data not previously collected.
During the day, students spoke of their passion for research and for being involved in developing new knowledge. It’s clear that bringing in external thinkers to encourage change is going to be essential for the future of academia.
A blueprint for change
The focus of the day was the launch of the Postgraduate Diversity Strategy Blueprint. This strategy supports a strategic approach to tackling postgraduate access and success, with sector-wide collaboration encouraged to bring about positive change. The strategy blueprint provides a framework for reviewing existing activity against and showcases the progress others have made in this area to date. It can also be used as a tool to facilitate conversations with senior leaders. The accompanying pledge enables staff to showcase their support, so sign up now to be involved in driving the agenda forward.
There were some great takeaways from the event and so much to think about in taking our next steps. One keynote referenced the importance of senior leaders with empathy and emotional intelligence and their role in making long term change, whilst another highlighted the significance of our collective selves providing a critical voice in the sector and calling for change.
More generally, universities need to listen to diverse voices and work collaboratively with students, whilst also driving forward change at “ground level”, continuing to innovate and pilot activity, learning from each other and ensuring activity is sustainable, and implemented and evaluated for the long term.
By Jenn Coates, Plus Programme Lead, University of Leeds