GuildHE has commissioned the the Institute for Community Studies to conduct a scoping study focused on understanding the lived experience of students from ethnic minorities* at small and specialist higher education institutions, with a focus on their access participation, continuation in, and capacity to shape and transform, postgraduate research study.


As a research consortium for small and specialist universities, GuildHE Research is engaged in a programme of work to support the research environments of our member institutions and to enable them to embed positive and constructive research cultures. In line with GuildHE’s wider work on anti-racism, the consortium applied for funding from the Office for Students and Research England to enhance the experiences of students from ethnic minority backgrounds in accessing and participating in postgraduate research study.

Whilst developing the proposals for this competition, we identified some evidence gaps in how postgraduate study is experienced specifically at smaller and specialist institutions. In these contexts the overall numbers of postgraduate research students is lower than in the rest of the higher education sector, yet the proportions of students from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with other characteristics protected under equality law (gender and age in particular) are different in profile; more are mature, more are female, more are studying part-time. It is therefore challenging to draw on sector-wide data to understand the specific context experienced by students at GuildHE institutions. In addition, as very few postgraduate research students at GuildHE institutions receive funding from research councils or external funders, it would be helpful for us to understand the drivers behind student choice, as well as the barriers that may prevent potential postgraduate students from taking up the opportunity.

Co-creating with students

We convened a Student Consultation Panel as part of our preparatory work for our funding application. Facilitated conversations with this panel identified a number of possible avenues to explore:

  • Influence of family, cultural background on student choice and experience of study
  • Sense of belonging in the industries and professions to which their research interests relate, or lack thereof
  • The effect of a lack of diversity in academia on research careers
  • Choice of institution, and the relationship with that institution, particularly where they are in an extreme minority and become a beacon or exemplar for ‘diversity and inclusion’.
  • The lack of clarity on current interventions for anti-racism and the subsequent feeling of a lack of nuanced understanding of their background.

Addressing an evidence gap

Existing data sets and qualitative studies tend to reflect the situation in research intensive contexts. Where studies of the student experience of ethnic minorities at teaching intensive, research active institutions do exist (e.g. Asian student experience at Winchester), they are either specific to a discrete number of institutions, or a single institution. They are equally not often led by the students and scholars that this work centres on and most affects, thus this rseearch presents an opportunity for the evidence base for interventions to be uniquely shaped by the voice, knowledge and leadership of those scholars from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. It will also make a significant contribution to amplifying the voice of these students as many of these studies are also not accessible or readily in the public domain.

This study into the lived experience of students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds at small and specialist institutions, will focus on access, participation and continuation in, and the value to them of, postgraduate research study. Our aim is to create a qualitative and contextualised evidence base to underpin the evaluation of GuildHE’s own work on anti-racism and associated activities, but also to enable us to feed into and respond more effectively to sector-wide interventions for ethnic minority students by better understanding the experience at smaller institutions.

Peer research methodology

To conduct this study, the Institute for Community Studies have recruited 8 peer researchers from the current postgraduate research students at GuildHE and GuildHE Research institutions. These researchers will benefit from training in peer research methodology and the guidance of Civic Scholars, a programme recently established by the Institute. Peer conversations will be combined with a rapid desk review and lead to co-analysis workshops to cohere the final findings.

The exact topics and framing would be designed with input from existing post-graduate students, however we would however hope to understand more about:

  • Values of and for research and academic life
  • Family and cultural contexts that affect access, participation and continuation
  • Institutional choice and place-based context
  • Programme choice and cultural implications of this
  • Institutional culture and continuing studies
  • Career paths and prospects
  • Supervisory relationships and mentorship.

Next steps

The final report will be published in early 2022. For more information contact Rachel Persad, Policy Manager (Research & innovation) at GuildHE, or Alice Bell, Research Officer at The Young Foundation.

* The term ‘ethnic minorities’ is used here following recent research by British Future ( ) as the term the majority of individuals from minority groups in the UK were most comfortable with. However we recognise that this is one term to reflect a diversity of identities and hyphenated identities (such as Black British or British Asian) and that the choice of terminology should be that the individual would use to talk about