Widening access to postgraduate studies: from research to strategy to action

Submitted by Miranda Prynne on Wed, 16/02/2022 - 13:00
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Providing equitable access into and through higher education is a constant battle, especially in postgraduate research, but barriers can be addressed when evidence is connected to action, as Diane Gill explains
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As the largest facilitator of funding, training and support for doctoral students in the UK, the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) has a responsibility to widen access to and participation in postgraduate study and research. All students with the potential to progress to doctoral study should have equal opportunity to do so and have equal opportunity to succeed in their studies. Making this a reality is a core part of our mission.

During a 2019 mid-term review by one of our key funders, the Economic and Social Research Council, we were directed to further develop equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and widening participation (WP) strategies. It was a fair comment. Although minimising barriers to participation is very much part of our ethos – we provide financial assistance to attend events and offer studentships and internships on a part-time basis, for example – there was no strategy or explicit references to EDI or WP on our website.

In September 2020, we commissioned PhD student Hannah Gormley to undertake research to provide further evidence on how to develop effective policies to widen access to funding for under-represented groups and minimise barriers to participation in postgraduate research study. 

We used the findings of Hannah’s report to develop our EDI strategy. Here are some key insights from the journey so far.

Democratisation of information

Never assume that just because the information is there, people know where to find it.

It was shocking to discover that 83 per cent of almost 300 survey respondents – who were all potential PhD applicants in social science in Scotland – had not visited the SGSSS website. We quickly realised that accessing information is not always a simple process. For example, at the University of Edinburgh alone, there are websites for 15 disciplines as well as the central admissions pages.

Most universities tend to focus on the application process rather than securing funding, and links to SGSSS were often hidden. As well as flagging these statistics with our university partners, we worked with our student rep to produce a one-page checklist for universities to review against their admissions content.

When people do finally reach your website, your content needs to be accessible. On reflection in our case, the very detailed guidance was perhaps so comprehensive it put off those already intimidated by a competitive landscape. There was no quick access to basic information: how long does a PhD last? How does funding work?

We created bite-sized videos and recorded a webinar addressing these fundamental questions. This has given people more access to the basics – the next step is to review navigation and presentation to break down the more complex pieces of guidance.

Keep your key information clear and easy to find. The detail can come later.

Whole-person approach for student applications

Another step towards a more equitable approach is to use a whole-person assessment framework for student applications. The framework aims to attract and recruit a wider set of applicants by more explicitly assessing their potential to flourish within the PhD in ways that go beyond academic achievement.

There are questions that aim to draw out attributes demonstrated in an applicant’s background and challenges that they have overcome. Vignettes can give helpful insight into how the scoring matrix might operate in practice, including examples of contextual information candidates are encouraged to include. For example, a first-generation candidate who just missed a first-class degree but worked long hours outside their studies to finance their education. Or a single parent who brought to their student rep role an understanding that university life is affected by many external factors and used their experience to advocate for their peers.

We have removed the requirement of a first-class degree to obtain the highest scoring band, and adapted the reference template, which makes it more appropriate for non-academic referees.

Standardised data

The lack of standardised data for widening participation in postgraduate research came up frequently in Hannah’s research. In its absence, developing an evaluation framework is critical.

This should include monitoring the effectiveness of changes over time through applicant and reviewer feedback as well as from any relevant widening participation markers. The challenge around gaps in the data is one of the reasons we have not yet taken decisive action, such as ring-fencing studentships. We were not confident that we had the data to support this across all groups we believed to be under-represented; for example, we had BAME statistics but nothing on social class. We are now collecting much more data, such as whether someone is first-generation or received free school meals, to measure the effectiveness of the whole person assessment over time and working with colleagues via the National Education Opportunities Network to establish some standard postgraduate research student data points.

Celebrating and supporting the diversity of our PhD population

One thing that struck us early on was that although we have always had a widening access ethos, it is by no means obvious. Making our assessment process more transparent was one step towards this. Another was creating a section of our website showcasing the stories of our current students, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds.

We want to work much more closely with our students to better support minority groups. We now have student reps involved in developing the whole-person approach, reviewing our widening access strategy, sharing their own stories on our website and generally injecting fresh perspective and energy.

To summarise, my key takeaways are:

  1. Never assume and listen to as many voices as you can. Through Hannah’s research, we uncovered very basic things we had not considered, such as people not finding the SGSSS website.
  2. Tell people what you are doing and why you are doing it. Many of our assessors had already bought into a whole-person approach but, because it was an “ethos” rather than a policy, nothing was written down. This meant students did not believe it and behaviour contrary to the ethos could proceed without being challenged.
  3. Do not be afraid to suggest the radical. We never expected our stakeholders to be prepared to remove the first-class requirement or include “flourishing” alongside academic achievement, yet we found we were pushing against an open door.
  4. Data matters! In the absence of standard data for all under-represented groups, it is very hard to fully justify what you are doing in terms of positive action. Decide on your priorities and collect relevant data to justify actions.

Diane Gill is head of strategy and operations at the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS). The SGSSS is a partnership of 16 universities that combine resources to offer studentships, training, internships and many other opportunities for doctoral researchers, supporting more than 4,000 students.

This article first appeared on the University of Edinburgh’s Teaching Matters blog as “Widening Access: From research to strategy to action”.

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Providing equitable access into and through higher education is a constant battle, especially in postgraduate research, but barriers can be addressed when evidence is connected to action, as Diane Gill explains