Case study

Fair access for postgraduate study

Our researchers are making postgraduate study more accessible to those who face inequalities in broader society.

Female PhD student wearing an hijab about to graduate.

The issue

There is a continuing imbalance of students at postgraduate level in terms of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, with important differences across subject of study and institution attended for first-degree.

In the context of expansion of undergraduate participation, postgraduate qualifications can now be seen as representing a new frontier of social mobility.

Our researchers have found there to be growing inequality in the acquisition of postgraduate qualifications across cohorts, associated with an increase in undergraduate participation. Gains made in terms of undergraduate access now risk being annulled by postgraduate expansion.

The research

We conducted rigorous evaluations of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) initiatives designed to broaden postgraduate access. The reports clearly identified that improved funding for postgraduate students is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for widening postgraduate participation.

The research showed that debts from undergraduate study are not necessarily a deterrent to continuation at postgraduate level. More important issues were ease of access to resources (including credit) and first degree institution.

Drawing on this body of research Professor Paul Wakeling prepared a report for Research Councils UK (now UK Research and Innovation) on socioeconomic diversity at doctoral level.

The report, which arose from discussions with research councils about access to doctoral study, points to evidence on the under-representation of those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

It reviews the conceptual and practical challenges of measuring such disadvantage at doctoral level, proposing a set of feasible and realistic steps to monitor application and entry, as the basis for interventions to widen participation.

This research shows strong institutional stratification in access to doctoral study, as well as inequalities across race, ethnicity and gender, including within disciplines with a female majority at undergraduate level.

The outcome

The impact that our research has achieved is striking but, in many ways, was a long time coming. Organisations such as the National Union of Students (NUS) were greatly disappointed when, in the 2010 Browne Review, Lord Browne did not recommend any changes to postgraduate funding.

But persistence paid off and our findings have been instrumental in establishing fairer funding policies for postgraduates from diverse backgrounds.

Our research highlights widening participation issues within postgraduate education and has inspired policy solutions including HEFCE’s development of the Postgraduate Support Scheme in 2014/15 and 2015/16, and the Government’s Masters loans scheme.

As well as feeding into these policy solutions, our researchers have been instrumental in evaluating some of them. Our ongoing work helps organisations including UKRI and the Office for Students to address socioeconomic diversity in PhD study.

We continue to make a significant contribution to the UK’s commitment to widening participation at postgraduate level.

Featured researcher

Paul Wakeling

Professor Wakeling is a leading expert on social class and access to UK postgraduate education.

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Featured researcher

Sally Hancock

Dr Hancock's research interests explore inequalities in access to higher education.

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