An untapped resource? Taught postgraduate students as partners in widening participation

It is often assumed that taught postgraduates have no time to engage in widening participation activity – but is this actually the case?

Addressing barriers to student success

The project described in this post is part of the OfS’s £7.5 milllion programme, ‘Addressing barriers to student success’, which supports universities and colleges to promote access, success and progress for disadvantaged students.

Engaging undergraduate students to support the delivery of widening participation activity is common practice. There’s a widespread assumption that taught postgraduates won’t have the time to engage in the same way. But findings from a project in the OfS’s Addressing barriers to student success programme, in which taught postgraduates acted as mentors to final year undergraduates, show that they are just as keen to pass on the benefits of their experiences.

Involving students in widening participation activity

Working with students to support widening participation is common in higher education, as they can often act as the best positive role models to other students. The majority of student volunteers approached will be undergraduates or research students. These students develop long-term relationships with their university over several years, and are likely to have less intensive periods of study during which volunteering opportunities might be explored and undertaken.

Taught postgraduate students, on the other hand, are typically on intensive one-year courses, and could also be settling into a new institution or subject. One might imagine, then, that they would be a difficult group to engage in widening participation initiatives. But our experience suggests that this is not the case: one of the project’s unexpected and very welcome findings has been their willingness and enthusiasm to be involved.

Leeds postgraduate mentors

The project

The Universities of Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Warwick and York are currently undertaking a two-year project on improving progression rates to taught postgraduate study among students from neighbourhoods with low rates of participation in higher education and from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

The project has so far engaged taught postgraduate students in ‘Discover Postgrad’, a mentoring scheme for final year undergraduates. Master’s students have also shared their experiences and perspectives via webinars, videos, skills training workshops and focus groups:

  • Over 300 taught postgraduates offered to take part in a scheme to mentor final year undergraduates.
  • Nearly 50 have taken part in webinars, videos or events.
  • A call for BAME taught postgraduates to attend a focus group resulted in over 40 expressions of interest in under a week.

Such support is especially valuable given well-established evidence of the importance of peers and informal networks as sources of advice and guidance.

What the postgraduate mentors thought

Feedback suggests that postgraduates have been motivated to take part by an altruistic desire to help other students. Many highlighted that they wished they had had more support and guidance while they were making their own postgraduate choices, and saw the project as something they would have found useful.

We asked two of our postgraduate contributors to reflect on why they took part and how they found the experience.

Farkhanda Khan, studying an MSc in Management at the University of Leeds, took part in the ‘Discover Postgrad’ mentoring scheme in which current master’s students were paired with final-year undergraduates to share their perspectives and advice:

'Overall it has been a great experience being a mentor for the Discover Postgrad mentoring scheme. I really enjoyed meeting my mentee and getting to know her over the few months. I chose to take part in the scheme as I thought it was a great idea and wanted to help other students with what I had learnt as a postgraduate.

I loved how the scheme was informal and flexible as well as how it tailored to supporting both the mentors and mentees’ needs. I personally developed my own self-confidence and key interpersonal skills whilst mentoring.

Having also studied my bachelor’s degree at Leeds, I really wish I had a postgraduate mentor when I was deciding whether to do a master’s. Meeting actual postgraduate students who can reflect on their personal experiences is really insightful and encouraging. Hopefully, my mentee found my advice useful and she’s continuing master’s study at Leeds!'

Ben Reid, studying an MSc in Forensic Speech Science at the University of York, presented in Discover Postgrad workshops on skills for postgraduate study and was also filmed talking about his master’s experience:

'I volunteered to take part in the Discover Postgrad scheme because I wanted to help inform undergrad students about what a master's looks like. Around the same time last year, I was weighing up the benefits of doing a master's and these sessions would have been immensely helpful for me, so I was keen to take part in making the whole process more informed and ensuring students were clued up to the benefits of postgraduate study.

'I think this scheme will get more people considering master's study. It was particularly good at involving departments and current students themselves, rather than university-wide marketing or just lecturers. While videos are easy to distribute, the live event we did was really fun!'

While students on taught postgraduate courses need to be given time to settle into their institutions and courses, there is a clear willingness to engage with widening participation activities that could be used to strengthen such work, in particular where they aim to enable access to postgraduate study. 

We are now considering how best to work in partnership with master’s students to support access initiatives for all levels of higher education.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.


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