Katherine Powlesland is Postgraduate Widening Participation Manager at the University of Cambridge, where she discusses the challenges facing Widening Participation in Postgraduate education.
Widening Participation (WP) tracking and outreach initiatives have become well-established in undergraduate study in the UK, but postgraduate (PG) WP has been slower out of the blocks. Recent months, though, have seen something of a change in pace. Three detailed expert analyses have been published in quick succession:
These have confirmed what PG WP sector guru Paul Wakeling has been telling us all along: that under-representation gets worse the further through the Higher Education system you go, particularly for Black students and for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. There is a clear appetite in the sector to bring about change both on the grounds of social justice, understanding that diversity in perspective and lived to experience. This is central to global competitiveness on the academic research stage; and some action, through targeted scholarships for under-represented groups (Leicester, Manchester, and UCL’s are just three examples among many), and piloting some experimental outreach activities. But the sector has not yet fully leapt into action. Why?
The answer is simple and pragmatic. PG WP still struggles confidently to name its problems: to routinely crunch its WP data so that areas of under-representation are clearly identifiable locally against sector benchmarks. This is partly because of the highly devolved nature of the PG application process, which means that PG WP lacks the central, systematic, replicable framework for WP data collection that has enabled undergraduate WP, via UCAS, to build its consistent reporting benchmarks. It is partly because, other than on the statutory reporting requirements collected by HESA (gender, age, disability status, ethnicity), each university decides for itself what measures of under-representation to track at PG level. But in a cohort characterised by heterogeneity – of age, of years since first degree, household socioeconomic status and composition, nationality, mode of study, type of programme followed – capital disadvantage becomes a mutable characteristic and needs to be treated differently in the context of different student journeys. It is also partly because, even where data is systematically collected, massive variations are often conflated and masked in reporting totals that combine the UK with International students, full-time with part-time, taught PG with research. The practice of disaggregating the data is very simple; the difficulty for users across the sector is inconsistently choosing and reporting the same subsets. With few universities funding a full-time PG WP post, it is no coincidence that it took dedicated expert consultant analysts to generate the landmark reports mentioned above. But without real confidence in our data, we have no hope of seeing really clearly where exactly we are.
Data is just a first step, but it is the crucial first step towards a clearer vision in PG WP. With good data, we can begin to confidently put resources – including new sector funding – behind the right outreach programmes: programmes that will enable the PG sector to actively uphold and enact the values we want to underpin our sector. PG WP urgently needs to come together to agree on sector-wide reporting frameworks. From there, we will be able to move into confident action.
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