With hopeful spirit in a rather bleak midwinter last year colleagues up and down the country were working on bids to the Office for Students and Research England competition for improving access and participation in postgraduate research for students from ethnic minority backgrounds. Encouraged by the stated aims of the funders to create a diverse portfolio of funded projects that could reach students in different locations, institutions and disciplines, GuildHE worked with eight of our member institutions, all smaller and specialist universities, on proposals for this call. 

Butser Hill. In The Bleak Midwinter. (c) 2009, grumpylumixuser,

Please sir, can we have some more?

GuildHE partnered on two proposals.The first, led by The University of Winchester, focussed on access. We drew on the institutions’ established track record of developing effective widening participation approaches for marginalised and under-represented groups, such as children from families working in the military services, and hoped to apply similar strategies to engaging with potential students from ethnic minority backgrounds in the final years of compulsory education. As a group of institutions where research is applied to industry and professions, and is in close connection to teaching and vocational training, we aimed to demystify research and make it relevant and in reach of the community of students we seeked to engage.

The second proposal, led by Bath Spa University, focussed on the other end of the postgraduate research lifecycle and sought to enhance students’ career prospects. As providers of specialist and ‘close to market’ education and research, students at our institutions are very likely to come with professional experience and will seek roles outside of traditional academia, or work with a foot in both their own practice alongside an academic post. Inequalities, under-representation, and discrimination are found in both domains, perhaps particularly so in sectors where elitism and privilege are common, such as the creative industries or elite sport. We intended to develop a leadership programme for postgraduate students from ethnic minority backgrounds, and a parallel allyship training and mentoring model for industry partners. The combination had potential to remove barriers and create safer spaces for students, supervisors, employers, and institutions to address long-standing and often unspoken biases that prevent individuals from succeeding, or simply surviving, in their chosen field. 

Both proposals were underpinned by the GuildHE Anti-Racism programme and our commitment to supporting our member institutions to create positive and inclusive research cultures. Crucially, our proposals addressed the situation experienced at smaller and specialist institutions, which attract students who have different characteristics to the majority of postgraduate research students, where research study tends to be funded by the students themselves or via scholarships offered by the institution, and where postgraduate cohorts are small and students from ethnic minority backgrounds can be an extreme minority.

The results are in…

Unfortunately neither proposal was funded. However, we were heartened that the review panel saw real value in aspects of which we were equally proud; open and honest engagement with current postgraduate research students; an intent to truly co-create and collaborate; and identifying evidence gaps where we could add value to our collective understanding of students’ lived experience of postgraduate research. We congratulate those awarded funding; it is an important moment in addressing the challenges in access to research careers and a step forward in improving the quality of the experience for many students from backgrounds of the global majority. 

It is nevertheless disappointing that the portfolio of funded interventions includes no smaller institutions of the scale and type that we represent. To illustrate, the lead institution with the smallest amount of mainstream Quality-Related funding, a good enough proxy for research intensity, receives 87% more mainstream QR than the institution within our membership which receives the most*. The smallest institution amongst all partners in those awarded funded receives 23% more, on the same comparative measure. 

There is also a regional concentration of funds, leaving some areas and rural and coastal regions barely engaged with. There may well be a logic to this, as those areas receiving the majority of the funding, based on lead institution, include Yorkshire (35% of the total fund, £2,724,766), and London (15%, £1,158,367), where local communities are notably diverse, and those from the global majority more numerous within the population. There is also a striking pattern of concentration; five institutions are leads and partners on projects, and two are involved in four separate projects apiece. In a pool of 13 projects and 25 institutions that does seem unnecessarily cosy. 

As a representative body for smaller and specialist institutions we are continually advocating for a higher education sector in which the full diversity of institutions are valued, included, and supported. Diversity is a real strength of the UK higher education and research ecosystem and promotes equality of opportunity, regardless of individuals’ background, social capital, location, preferred mode of study, or stage of life. Concentrating funds on similar types of institutions leaves some students out of key opportunities and it is detrimental to that diversity.

Let’s look back at your best bits

The experience of working collaboratively on this call has nonetheless been hugely valuable. Through it we have laid a foundation stone for our engagement with the issues of access, experience and progression for postgraduate research students from ethnic minority backgrounds. The work has led to changes in practice at the institutions involved, leading to specific scholarships unabashedly targeted at students from marginalised communities, and funding for projects that illuminate the experiences of those from ethnic minorities. Our partners from outside HE have created new programmes to foster better understandings of research students’ lived experience. And we have engaged with students across diverse institutions with a shared experience, and invested in them through peer research training, creating a new space for exchange, debate, and communication with this community to inform our ongoing commitment to anti-racism. 

In short, as a result of our collaboration individuals and institutions feel empowered in their allyship and encouraged to be bold in their intentions to enact change. Much has been learnt through the process, and rejection is part of that, not it’s end.

But let’s not forget that many of the ideas we had will either require funding from elsewhere, be diluted, or take place over a longer period, if at all. In smaller institutions modest amounts of additional funding make a very significant impact. However, without that additional funding there simply isn’t the flexibility in budgets or staff to support the proposed interventions with the intended ambition.

New year, new you

In the new year, we will publish new research, commissioned from the Institute for Community Studies and conducted by current postgraduate students as peer researchers, about the lived experience of studying postgraduate research at a smaller and specialist institution. We committed to this research in our proposals. We look forward to sharing our research with the sector, and hope it will provide useful evidence and insight to all those projects funded.

Doing the research, and acting upon it is a vital step in maintaining the relationships forged and the momentum we have created. With our consortium of 29 institutions we will devise ways to support this common goal of improving the experience of marginalised students in light of their findings. Indeed, the recent additional funds allocated by Research England to enhance research culture are welcome and timely. This resource creates real potential for taking action, especially for us and the other 48 projects that were proposed but not funded under this call.

So in 2022, can we create an exchange of ideas and actions that can work across the many forms of higher education institutions in the UK to improve the experience for ethnic minority students? It’s certainly a resolution to commit to.

*University of Wolverhampton = £1,604,471, Bath Spa University = £857,237