Dayo Eseonu, Principal Researcher at The Young Foundation’s Institute for Community Studies and Haleema Masud, Policy Support Officer, GuildHE

Today GuildHE and the Institute of Community Studies publish new research into the access and participation challenges for minority ethnic postgraduate researchers in smaller and specialist institutions. Eight postgraduate researchers from GuildHE member institutions were recruited and trained to co-design, conduct and co-analyse interviews of fellow ethnic minority researchers. 

The Institute of Community Studies – a research institute, powered by The Young Foundation – provided peer research training and support to deliver this project. Peer research is led by people who have a personal understanding of the subject being explored; in this case, postgraduate ethnic minority students. Peer researchers are able to leverage their ‘insider knowledge’ to gain deeper insights from their peers. In this project, they helped develop the questions that other students were asked, conducted interviews, analysed interview data, and helped write up the research findings and recommendations for action. In the analysis of the interview data, the peer researchers brought their own lived experiences, which added value to the research data. Peer research is a particularly effective approach in contexts such as this, seeking to hear from the ‘less heard’ voices in postgraduate research education. 

As per the research, participants’ motivation to pursue postgraduate research studies at GuildHE Institutions included familiarity with the institution and academic staff, tuition fees, access to specialist expertise and university rankings. The findings of this study, supplemented with the past researchers, highlight the systemic elements associated with access and experiences for ethnic minority PGRs. In terms of access, respondents highlighted the lack of funding opportunities available at GuildHE Institutions and the challenges associated with being a part time PhD student. 

A catch-22 situation

Previous studies show that the majority of students who claim free school meals are from ethnic minority backgrounds. In 2018/19, 48.19% of BAME PGRs received no award or financial backing for their tuition fees, as compared to 32.66% of White PGRs. Additionally, black students are more likely to attend Post-92 Universities and less likely to achieve a 1st or 2:1 at undergraduate level. However, students with higher attainment and those from high tariff institutions are more likely to enter postgraduate research studies. Furthermore, students from Russell Group institutions are more likely to be funded by research councils. 

While the introduction of loans for postgraduate research study have strongly benefitted ethnic minority students, they do not counter the gaps highlighted above in access to other avenues of funding. 

“I realised the money is not enough, even if I’ve got that loan at all from government. I’ve told myself, I’m doing part time to manage in my head. But I’ve got this rigid attendance, which is 12 hours, Wednesday, Saturday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. So as I was saying, my supervisor said it’s not possible. I am still doing it as I’m talking to you. But for us. It’s possible. It’s either that or you don’t study.” 

The results reiterate findings from other studies around a lack of sense of belonging for ethnic minority postgraduate research students. Students highlighted the lack of representation in the student body, academic staff and curricula. They shared a lack of openness and fairness in formal and informal opportunities available to them. Students also felt that more could be done to facilitate their ability to establish connections with academia and industry who understand their specific experience. The respondents noted that they had not experienced overt racism and attributed that to the various interventions taken in the universities. However, they highlighted that such interventions do not always address the microaggressions and deep-seated institutional racism. Some respondents also highlighted a fear of repercussions associated with speaking out. 

Opportunity in Diversity

While GuildHE ethnic minority postgraduate research students may only account for a small percentage of the sector, small and specialist institutions can play a significant role in overcoming some of these challenges. Postgraduate research students who enter these small and specialist providers often follow an atypical PhD route, coming in from teaching, industry, or the professions. Their route out of doctoral study often goes beyond the academy. Some of these universities are based in locations and operate in specialisms that have a white majority. These institutions also provide greater access to students from varied backgrounds and those with a wider set of skills that goes beyond academic achievement. 

While all students may have areas of commonality in their lived experiences, the findings of this research clearly suggest that students from ethnic minority backgrounds are faced with unique constraints in accessing and participating in Postgraduate Research studies. Our expectation is that this report will help to influence sector-wide interventions, leading to a more diverse and inclusive culture across UK Higher Education.

Uchenna Nweke, Peer Researcher and PhD student at Buckinghamshire New University

As a starting point, this report gives us an insight into the unique struggles and opportunities for ethnic minority postgraduate researchers. It clarifies that while the sector interventions may have silenced open racism, more needs to be done to develop understanding and recognition around microaggressions, different cultures, and barriers unique to each ethnically diverse individual. The unique role small and specialist institutions can play in relation to places, specialisms and industry must be acknowledged and nurtured in order to overcome such widespread and pernicious challenges.