Access and success for black, Asian and minority ethnicity groups in postgraduate research study

Access and success for black, Asian and minority ethnicity groups in postgraduate research study

By Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England, and Nicola Turner MBE, Head of Skills at the Office for Students

31 October 2019

We have seen a renewed and very much welcomed focus within the HE sector and the broader media, on the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic students’ involvement in post-graduate research (PGR).  We know that such a focus is entirely warranted.

The evidence is compelling. There are persistent inequalities to access, experience and success for black as well as Asian and minority ethnic students in higher education, across multiple levels of study.

The recent Advance HE Equality in Education Statistical Report uses data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), to provide an overview of the student population in the academic year 2017/18. The report highlights that black, Asian and minority ethnic representation is markedly lower among PGR study (17.2%) than in undergraduate (24.7%) and taught postgraduate (22.6%) study.

These disparities are persistent, year on year. In 2016, before the passing of HERA, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) examined transitions into postgraduate study. The report again highlights substantial disparities, with white graduates nearly twice as likely as black, Asian and minority ethnic graduates to participate in PGR study within five years of undergraduate graduation (2.4% compared to 1.3% respectively).

Of course, PGR study cannot be examined in isolation and must be understood in the context of the broader student lifecycle. As a prerequisite to PGR study, students are commonly required to achieve a 1st or 2:1 grade at undergraduate level, yet we know that in 2017/18 there was the profound difference of 23.1 percentage points between the proportion of white and black students receiving a 1st or a 2:1 in undergraduate study.

Similarly, we know that students are more likely to enter into PGR study from higher tariff institutions, yet there is on average lower representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic groups within those institutions. Notably, black students made up only 3.8% of entrants to high tariff providers, compared with 11.4% of entrants to lower tariff providers. Even when accounting for grades achieved at undergraduate level, we know that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are less likely to access PGR study.

The OfS’ mission is to ensure equality of access, success and outcome for all students from all backgrounds. In our role as regulator we have set ambitious targets to eliminate inequalities and poor outcomes for students from underrepresented groups at undergraduate level. These targets frame individual providers’ long-term access and participation plans and focus the sector upon these goals. More than this, with our Effective Practice Strategy, the OfS aims to support the sector to achieve these aims, with the required tools and evidence.

Research England are equally committed to equality of opportunity for all to flourish and succeed in an environment that enables them to do so. As part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) we are committed to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) for its own sake and act as champions for EDI across the research and innovation sector. In the context of maintaining the UK’s world leading position in research and innovation we believe that this will only be achieved through the fostering of talent from the widest pool possible.

In this respect, the research landscape faces challenges to ensure that it is diverse and inclusive, and that everyone has the opportunity to thrive and become leaders regardless of their ethnicity or other characteristics. The increased investment expected from the public and private sector to achieve the government target of 2.4% GDP investment in research and development by 2027, provides an extraordinary opportunity to enhance the diversity of people in the UK’s research and innovation system. Postgraduate researchers are an integral part of these aims and will determine the future success of research and innovation.

The existing inequalities for black, Asian and minority ethnic students at PGR study are not compatible with the aims of either of our organisations and there is a clear need for action. There is an opportunity for the OfS and Research England to work jointly, to seek to facilitate change in the sector and to help develop lasting evidence to inform future provision.

Our first step is to jointly develop our understanding of access and participation for black, Asian and minority ethnic students in PGR study. To do this we will engage with the expertise and knowledge of our colleagues in the sector - notably the excellent work currently taking place at the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE).

The HERA sets out an important provision for UKRI and the OfS to work jointly, where it is beneficial to do so. There are clear shared interests for our organisations with regards to postgraduate researchers. The OfS’ regulatory objectives cover ‘all students from all backgrounds’, meanwhile for UKRI, PGRs represent the future of research talent as well as being students. This is an area where joint working will ensure that our work is coordinated and most importantly, that people do not fall through the gaps.