Find out more about unconscious bias in student recruitment, progression, and retention.
The University of York Strategy 2020-2030 explains our commitment to tackling bias in everything we do, and outlines our future aspirations for our student body:
“We graduate and maintain ties with a diverse student body who become leaders and champions of the principles of Inclusion, Collaboration, Internationalism and Sustainability that guide the University.”
“We will not accept gaps in continuation, progression and award across the diversity of our student cohorts at any stage in the student lifecycle and will act to close such gaps where they appear.”
“We remove digital poverty as a barrier for access as well as for success.”
(University Strategy, 2020-2030)
Our students are a wide and diverse group, from different backgrounds, with different life experiences and identities. In 2021/22, some of our student equality characteristics looked like this:
- Gender: 57.5% female, 42.5% male, 0.1% other
- Disability: 83.3% not disabled, 16.7% disabled
- Ethnicity: 64.3% non-BAME, 34% BAME, 1.7% not known
- Sexual Orientation: 66.5% heterosexual, 18% Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Other
Being aware of and responsive to diversity can help us to attract and engage students, and help them feel included throughout their studies and beyond. In this section, we look at what colleagues across the University are doing to support student recruitment, progression, and retention, taking account of the diversity of the student body and the sorts of employment they may move into beyond university.
Jess Penn and Nick Glover: inclusive learning
Jess Penn and Nick Glover talk about about the work of the Inclusive Learning team, including our toolkit for staff on inclusive practice in learning and teaching, and some of the projects we have led on such as decolonising and diversifying the curriculum, research on the Award Gap at the University, and developing inclusive learning communities.
Jess Penn, Inclusive Learning Manager, and Nick Glover, Inclusive Learning Adviser, Inclusive Learning Team
Creating an inclusive curriculum and inclusive learning communities
The Inclusive Learning Team works with the academic community at York to offer guidance and support around inclusive learning, teaching, and assessment. The approach recognises that a range of voices, identities, and perspectives need to be part of the curriculum to fully engage with and include the University’s diverse range of students.
The Inclusive Learning Team offers a toolkit of resources on inclusive practice in teaching and learning to enable critical reflection on course content and delivery, including a set of reflective questions and case studies of good practice.
The Inclusive Learning team also leads a number of projects to align with the university strategy and with the Access and Participation Plan, to develop inclusive curricula, create student-led inclusive learning communities, develop partnership working between staff and students, and address awarding gaps.
The Decolonising and Diversifying the Curriculum Project is a partnership between University staff and student representatives. The University's Statement of approach-decolonising and diversifying the curriculum outlines a set of shared principles and understandings. A set of reflective questions have also been developed, designed to support staff to explore, discuss and reflect on ways in which they can approach decolonising and diversifying the curriculum as part of programme and module design. Decolonising and diversifying the curriculum involves challenging our dominant intellectual traditions, including the forms of knowledge we value, ways of teaching and the academic resources we foreground. The project identifies how power hierarchies operate in knowledge production and dissemination, and how new perspectives can be gained through conscious critical reflection, to include wider perspectives and marginal voices and identities in our teaching and learning.
The Award Gap project has been carrying out research with staff and students to develop a better understanding of staff and student perspectives on awarding gaps and the reasons why they occur. The findings from the research will be used to inform future projects and areas of work to address awarding gaps at York.
Developing inclusive learning communities is key to ensuring students at the University are able to feel a sense of belonging, and the Inclusive Learning team has led the University’s Departmental Community Coordinators Project, working closely with the student unions on the project’s design and delivery. The Department Community Coordinator project aims to build learning communities that create a sense of belonging and are open to and inclusive of all students at York.
At the heart of the Inclusive Learning team’s work is a commitment to developing student-staff partnerships based on the belief that they enable a more inclusive and reflective approach to co-creation of learning and teaching, and a framework for encouraging more partnership approaches across the university is underway.
My name is Jess Penn. I'm the manager of the Inclusive Learning Team at the University of York.
I'm Nick Glover, inclusive learning advisor within the Inclusive Learning Team.
The Inclusive Learning Team at the University of York offers guidance and support to the academic community on developing inclusive learning, teaching and assessment practises, which recognise and celebrate the diversity of our student community, benefiting all our students and empowering them to gain the most they can from their education at York.
Developing, inclusive teaching and learning practises at the university is important because it gives all students the opportunity to fully take part in their learning communities and to flourish in their academic studies.
Having an inclusive curriculum involves critical engagement with our learning and teaching practises to allow for a more diverse range of voices, identities and perspectives to be heard and represented.
The Inclusive Learning Team has developed a toolkit of resources, including reflective questions, case studies of good practise, and additional guidance to prompt reflection and critical engagement with different aspects of inclusive practise.
As well as offering guidance on inclusive practise, the Inclusive Learning Team also leads a number of university projects and initiatives which align with the university strategy and its access and participation plan.
These focus on developing inclusive curricula, the creation of student-led, inclusive learning communities, partnership, working between staff and students, and addressing awarding gaps and understanding the reasons why they occur.
The Decolonising and Diversifying the Curriculum Project was launched in 2020 and is coordinated by a working group made up of staff and student representatives from the student unions.
The university statements of approach to Decolonising and diversifying the curriculum outlines a set of shared principles and understandings.
A set of reflective questions has also been developed, designed to support staff to explore, discuss and reflect on ways in which they can approach decolonising and diversifying the curriculum as part of programme and module design.
Through decolonising and diversifying the curriculum we aim to reflect wider, global and historical perspectives.
This involves a process of questioning sources of knowledge, theories and intellectual traditions, identifying how knowledge production can reproduce power hierarchies and how new perspectives can emerge from sustained engagement in dialogue and discussion about this, it's also aims to develop a diverse, inclusive curriculum through critical engagements with the current curriculum to identify how marginal voices, identities and perspectives can be heard in order to make it more inclusive and intersectional.
In challenging the status quo of what is taught, we can promote more representative content and more diverse ideas.
Decolonising and diversifying the curriculum prompts us to thoroughly reassess our own knowledge, perspectives and principles and develops critical self-reflection on the part of staff and students and to acknowledge and reflect on our own behaviour and our own privileges and how these impact on our choices about what to include in the curriculum as well as our learning and teaching approaches.
The Award Gap Research Project has been carrying out research with staff and students, including a survey, a focus group, to develop better understanding of staff and student perspectives on awarding gaps and the reasons why for why they occur.
The findings from the research will be used to inform future projects and areas of work to address awarding gaps at York.
Partnership is a way of thinking and practising, which upends the traditional relationship between students and staff in higher education. We believe that education can be most empowering and inclusive when students and staff come together to co-create learning environments, policies and services.
Work has started on the co-development of a centrally supported framework to support greater adoption of students staff partnerships across the university. In the short term, the Inclusive Learning Team is facilitating the annual Learning and Teaching Fund for 2022/23, with an emphasis on projects involving students and staff working in collaboration to enhance aspects of learning and teaching.
The Inclusive Learning Team also leads the Department Community Coordinator Project, working closely with the student unions on the design and delivery of the project. The project aims to build learning communities that create a sense of belonging and are open to and inclusive of all students at York, with at least one paid student allocated to each department to help build inclusive learning communities.
Liz Wands-Murray: Health Sciences
Liz Wands-Murray talks about the work undertaken in Health Sciences to diversify the curriculum and equip students to engage with a diverse range of people in their careers.
Liz Wands-Murray, Department of Health Sciences
Rewriting the curriculum
Over the last few years Health Sciences have been looking at how diverse and inclusive their curriculum is. Programmes include nursing and midwifery, and students need to be able to work effectively with a diverse range of people when they are out working in the community.
In collaboration with their service users and carer forum, Health Sciences reviewed the teaching case studies they use, and organised these into a progressive sequence that students would learn from over the three years of their course, tied into the modules that are taken in each year. Case studies explore the impact of culture, religion, sexual identity, and other characteristics that can affect people’s health and engagement with health services.
Once the case studies had been produced, they looked at the rest of the curriculum, including its content and how it is delivered, to make it as inclusive as possible, and worked with staff to increase their understanding of diversity issues, such as why it is important to address people using the correct pronouns and how that might enable better engagement with the trans community.
This resonates with messages in Borkin’s (2021) literature review on bias in the curriculum, which includes various papers that highlight the importance of teaching that addresses the different health needs of diverse populations. It also resonates with the work and aims of the University’s Inclusive Learning Team - check out the section creating an inclusive curriculum and inclusive learning communities by Jess Penn and Nick Glover.
I'm Liz Wands-Murray I work in the Health Sciences Department, and we have been doing some work over the space of the last 2 to 3 years around thinking about the inclusivity and the diversity across our curriculum.
We run Nursing and Midwifery and Nursing Associate undergraduate pre-registration programmes in our department, and a huge part of what our students will do when they finish their studies is work with people in the community,and we need them to be able to understand how to communicate well, but also how to work constructively and positively with a huge range of people.
So we started to look at the case studies that we were using, and tried to ensure that they were as diverse as possible. We did some work with our service user and carer forum to consider the kinds of stories that we wanted to tell.
And we designed a structure so that those case studies would develop over the three years of the course. So we looked up the modules that were being delivered in the first year, thought about what the case studies would need to include, and then over the three years looked to develop the stories of each of those people, to fit in with the different subjects that would be covered across the modules.
And that worked really, really well in terms of being able to bring in a huge amount of different challenges and conversation discussion points for students around the impact of: culture, religion, sexual identity, gender identity, and all of those kind of different topics that come under the EDI banner.
Once we've done that, we realized that actually, as much as it was really great to have that diverse range of case studies, the rest of the content of the curriculum wasn't necessarily as representative, as inclusive.
So we've started some work to look at the language use, not just in the course content, but also the delivery of the course and the ways in which teaching is delivered in an inclusive way.
And although we can't educate every student about every possible permutation of that, actually what we can do is help them to develop the skills to be able to ask the right questions, to be able to respond to people in a constructive and a positive way. So we've started to look at all elements of the content of the curriculum.
We also thought it was really important to think about staff attitudes and understanding. So another kind of element of the work has been to really try and work with the staff teams that are delivering the teaching on those courses to broaden their horizons.
So for example, we delivered a training session around the importance of the use of pronouns. So not just how you would use them, but why that was important, the difference that that makes for the transgender community, and the hope will be the staff having that understanding themselves will then bring that through both into the way they interact with students, but also how they're actually framing the teaching that they're giving to those students who will then be out in the community and working with those diverse groups of people.
Dr Jillian Barlow: GenerationResearch
Dr Jillian Barlow explains the work being undertaken in Biology to encourage students from marginalised and non-traditional backgrounds to pursue a career in science through the GenerationResearch Project.
Dr Jillian Barlow, Department of Biology
UK science is world leading, but the reason it is world leading is because of the people in the science community. However, the community isn’t as diverse as it could be. GenerationResearch aims to help a diverse range of students to develop their science career, by providing opportunities for experience via summer studentships in the lab, and enable students to progress to further study via Masters in Research or PhD.
GenerationResearch was set up because Biology looked at the students who were taking part and realised the system wasn’t fair and transparent, for example, summer studentships were voluntary, unpaid, and that can create barriers for students from particular backgrounds. We now offer funded and structured experience opportunities for undergraduates and Masters students.
Funding is available for staff who instigate projects, which are then advertised as experience opportunities. When students apply, care is taken to reduce potential bias, such as not asking for a CV which can limit students who don’t have prior experience, and not asking for course transcripts, so that opportunities are not tied to grades.
Students are shortlisted for interview based on the combined ranking of their written application - where they are asked to answer basic questions about what they feel is important in science, why they want this experience, and what they can bring to the studentship - and their Widening Participation characteristics, including ethnicity, caring responsibilities, chronic illness, first in family, non-standard routes into university, LGBTQ+, home postcodes for deprivation scores, and many other characteristics.
Widening Participation characteristics are not used to make decisions about whether a student is successful - that comes down to the interview - but it does help to level the playing field and enable students who face barriers to get the chance to benefit from the opportunities available.
So I'm here to talk about Generation Research, which was a program that we initiated in biology to tackle issues of diversity and inclusivity in the student population in terms of those students entering a career in science.
So it's true to say that UK science is seen as a world leader in terms of the impact that it has and the changes that it's made. We only have to look at the recent COVID vaccine to show us how valuable it is. And there's lots of things that mean UK science is world leading.
We have great funding, we have great infrastructure, but really the heart of UK science and the reason that it's world leading is the people in the community. One of the problems is that community is potentially not as diverse and inclusive as it could be.
So in biology we wanted to look at ways that we could help students onto the career path in science. So we created our scheme called Generation Research.
Generation Research is a practical response and active response to the question of who is going to be our next generation of scientists. Who do we want those scientists to be?
And it really focuses on the D and I in EDI, so looking at making a diverse community of people collaborating and also an inclusive community.
What is necessary to progress a career in science is experience, and that experience for students is normally driven by summer studentships in the lab, opportunities that they can take to train and also perhaps particular master's degree. So master's by research and eventually PhD, postdoctoral work and beyond.
Generation Research looks at how we provide that experience and it was true to say that at least in the biology department, those experiences probably weren't being offered fairly.
The way to get one of those experiences was fairly opaque, and we wanted the process to be more transparent. The act of signing up to a summer experience such as this also biases against particular student groups because the experiences are quite often voluntary and that impacts a number of student groups and creates barriers.
And so Generation Research was set up to provide funded and structured technical and research experiences to undergraduates and also to master's level students. Not just within York but also across Yorkshire.
The Generation Research Scheme attracts external funding from stakeholders and partners. They offer that funding to staff members who come up with projects for students to do over the summer. And we then advertise those projects to students in each cycle.
The students can apply for a couple of projects and at the point of application, we feel like we've put a process in place which gets round the fact that these experiences in the past might have been biased towards particular types of students.
So what we do is the students apply, and through a really simple form. We don't ask for CV in their application because that can be a barrier for some students who don't feel like they can write a document like a CV at their particular stage in life. We don't look at their transcript information, and so the experience isn't dependent on their grades.
We simply ask them three questions, and that is: What do they feel is an important issue in science and why is it important? Why do they want to do a studentship and what can they bring to the studentship?
We also collect a very wide variety of widening participation criteria. We use the same criteria as the York Future Scholarship Fund, and that allows students to tick boxes that apply to them. We don't focus on one particular barrier to a career in science. We take in a very wide pass at what students might be experiencing in terms of why they don't feel this opportunity might not be for them. So we look at things like ethnicity, caring responsibilities, chronic illness, first in family to go to university, entering university on a non-standard qualification like a, B-tech, LGBTQ+, we look at the home postcodes so we can do deprivation score and many, many of the things we have about sort of 20 to 25 options that students can tick.
In the recruitment process, we then look at both the elements. So the answers to those questions that they've given, we give those a score and we also end up for each applicant with a widening participation score as well.
And we use those two things to work out a ranking for interviewing students for each project that we have. The interviews are all on Zoom, so the platform is equal for all candidates. They're only about 15 minutes.
The widening participation criteria is not used at that stage of the recruitment process. So we use it to upscale students to give them the opportunity to be interviewed. But we don't use it in terms of their performance in the interview. We just ask that they do their best and then it's a decision that the supervisor takes.
Complete your learning
Now that you've learnt more about unconscious bias in student recruitment and progression, you can go to the LMS and complete the quiz to demonstrate you have completed the learning.
You might also like to complete an action plan to record anything that you intend to take back to your department or service area for discussion.
Borkin (2021)’s Unconscious bias literature review: bias in the curriculum explores the literature on bias in teaching and learning in Higher Education, focusing specifically on bias in assessment, curriculum, and decision making. Examples of good practice are given from a range of HE institutions.
More information on Generation Research can be found on the Generation Research webpages.
The University of York’s Inclusive Learning web pages contain information on Inclusive Learning projects that seek to create a more inclusive education experience for students, including the Award Gap Research Project, and decolonising and diversifying the curriculum. This is relevant to unconscious bias because it involves challenging assumptions about existing curriculum content and its suitability for a diverse audience.
Decolonising and diversifying the curriculum aims to reflect wider global and historical perspectives through a process of questioning sources of knowledge, theories and intellectual traditions, identifying how knowledge production can reproduce power hierarchies and how new perspectives can emerge from sustained engagement in dialogue and discussion around this. It also aims to develop a diverse, inclusive curriculum through critical engagement with the current curriculum to identify how marginal voices, identities and perspectives can be heard in order to make it more inclusive and intersectional. By considering different approaches to assessment and teaching styles the University can ensure all students are treated fairly, reflecting the needs of our diverse student body.
You can also see our Statement of approach to decolonising and diversifying the curriculum.