Chris Millward from the Office for Students and Steven Hill from Research England explain the background to a new funding competition to improve access and participation in postgraduate research study.
During the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which established Research England and the Office for Students (OfS), the government made an important commitment to ensuring that the two organisations should work together on issues affecting both teaching and research, and students and academic staff.
We are doing this, for example, through our initiatives on knowledge exchange and postgraduate research (PGR) student mental health. Joint working of this kind is crucial, too, for understanding the flow of research talent and skills, particularly at postgraduate level.
Underrepresentation in PGR study
Issues of access and participation also bring the student and research missions of Research England and the OfS together. Black, Asian and minority ethnic students have high levels of participation in undergraduate education. But they face barriers to succeeding in undergraduate education and progressing to postgraduate research study. For example, there is a significant gap in the proportions of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students awarded a good (first or 2:1) undergraduate degree – often a prerequisite for entry to PGR study – compared with white students.
These and other factors are reflected in the underrepresentation of these student groups in the wider PGR student population. New data from the OfS shows the extent of that underrepresentation. Participation in PGR study at high-tariff universities and colleges (where most PGR study takes place) is low. In 2017-18, just 17.1 per cent of UK-domiciled PGR students at English higher education providers with high average tariff scores were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. The data also suggests that little headway is being made in terms of increasing participation levels: recent years have seen only a marginal rise of 1.4 percentage points, from 15.7 per cent in 2010-11.
By working together to support access and successful participation at PGR level for these students, we will improve opportunities for current generations and increase the flow of talent into academic careers – something that has been identified as important in addressing degree attainment gaps. This will complement the OfS’s regulation of access to undergraduate education and its funding of local outreach partnerships, which are focused on the communities across the country with the lowest levels of attainment and progression from school.
Call to action
The funding competition Research England and the OfS have announced today challenges higher education providers, working in collaboration with third sector and other partners, to come up with ambitious and innovative ways of delivering significant, sustainable improvements for current and future generations of PGR students. We know from our conversations with students and the sector that there is real appetite for change, and we want to see proposals that aim:
- To stimulate innovation, scale up and/or distribute effective practice in increasing access and participation for Black, Asian and/or minority ethnic groups in PGR study
- To ambitiously address evidenced issues of inequality across the PGR student lifecycle that create barriers for students from Black, Asian and/or minority ethnic groups
- To collaborate strategically to embed equality, diversity and inclusion across the sector to improve access and participation for Black, Asian and/or minority ethnic groups in PGR study.
We’ll also be looking for projects that are committed to involving Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in their design, development and delivery.
We want to share lessons learned from the projects with a view to embedding effective practice in access and participation for PGR students across the whole sector, and we have also today put out a call for an independent evaluation of the programme.
Collaborating for change
This funding competition reflects extensive engagement with the sector – we are grateful to the students, research staff and practitioners who contributed their professional expertise. The views and experience of current PGR students, and their reflections on what can be done to improve access and participation, were especially valuable.
At a workshop in December 2019, participants identified a broad range of barriers – societal, sectoral, and institutional – to access and participation in postgraduate research study. These included:
- the impact of prior attainment and place of undergraduate study on access to PGR, in particular the difficulties of moving between lower and higher tariff providers
- differences between subjects in pathways and opportunities for PGR students
- the importance of a supportive, inclusive environment to successful PGR participation.
These and other discussions and research have informed the funding competition priorities. We will soon be making further announcements on the appointment of a chair and the launch of an open call for an external assessment panel.
The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and has highlighted broader social and economic inequalities linked to race and ethnicity. Global attention on the Black Lives Matter movement has stimulated wide-ranging discussion of racial inequality, including how to tackle individual, institutional, and systemic racism. So it is perhaps particularly fitting that we are now asking English higher education providers how these particular inequalities in higher education might be addressed.
It is clear that this initiative alone will not eradicate inequality for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in PGR study. We hope, though, that it will make real and significant inroads by increasing our shared understanding of ‘what works’ and supporting students and the sector to bring about positive and lasting change. This will help us to unlock talent and research potential from all parts of society.