Green light for projects to tackle racial inequalities in postgrad research

The projects aim to find ways to remove disparities and inequalities for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students at all stages of postgraduate research

Thirteen universities have won a share of £8 million to “tackle persistent inequalities” that face aspiring Black, Asian and minority ethnic postgraduate researchers.

The four-year projects are jointly funded by Research England and the Office for Students because postgraduate researchers (PGRs) qualify both as students and research staff. The projects address research culture, access into research and PGR experience. The universities will variously tackle recruitment, admissions and the transition into senior researcher roles.

The University of Bradford’s project will work in conjunction with the city council, local teaching hospitals and the city enterprise zone to develop “positive action pathways” to support progression from postgraduate research into leadership positions. The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford will work in tandem with The Careers Research & Advisory Centre to develop ways to “disrupt persistent inequalities” in the traditional Oxbridge admissions practices that “historically focused on past experience as much as assessing potential”.

The five universities in the north-east of England will work in partnership to widen access and improve outcomes for PGRs in the region. A consortium of seven universities – Leeds, Goldsmiths, London, Reading, Plymouth, Sheffield and Sunderland – are establishing “Generation Delta” led by six female, Black, Asian and minority ethnic professors to nurture future academics like them.

The £8m funding was first announced in October 2020.

This is only one of many first steps, as systemic inequalities will not disappear overnight
– Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and Maisha Islam, selection panel co-chairs 

The UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) published a policy briefing in June 2020, highlighting the under-representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in the world of postgraduate research. Despite a rise in the proportion of PGRs between 2016/17 and 2018/19, the briefing notes that the growth rate of 0.13% is so small that it would take more than half a century for racial participation in postgraduate research to reach its equivalent proportion at undergraduate level.

Research England’s director of research, Steven Hill, said that inequalities at the undergraduate level – “such as the current gap in degree outcomes between white students and Black students of 22.1 percentage points” – become stark disparities in higher levels of academia. 

“PGR students are also researchers and teachers, and play an important role in supporting the research and academic talent pipeline,” Mr Hill said. 

“Supporting access and successful participation for Black, Asian and minority ethnic PGR students through these 13 innovative projects is crucial – both to improve opportunities for current generations, and to increase the diversity of talent into academic careers, which has been identified as important to addressing attainment gaps.”

The projects were picked by a specialist panel. Its co-chairs, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon and Maisha Islam, said: “We are confident that this competition will be a significant step of tangible action, investment and commitment to support [racial equality] in the context of English higher education.” 

“We have sought to back projects that have demonstrated authentic engagement and partnership work with their students and staff of colour, and a commitment to continue this as part of their own ongoing evaluations,” added the co-chairs. “This is only one of many first steps, as systemic inequalities will not disappear overnight.” 

The University and College Union has urged universities to treat PGRs like staff – and not as students, as they currently do – because they produce research and teach undergraduates but do not receive the protections of contracted employees.

Read more: Postgraduate researcher satisfaction levels drop to lowest on record 

Related news: New network for LGBTQ+ postgraduate researchers

Comment: ‘Let’s get serious about tackling underrepresentation in research’ – Rebecca McKelvey, In2ScienceUK

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