Postgraduate diversity "not good enough", figures show

Fewer than ten graduates each from Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi minority groups make the transition to a research degree each academic year, a study has found.

April 27, 2013

At masters level these groups had lower than average rates of progression, falling to an “exceptionally low” rate for research degrees, says a report commissioned by the Higher Education Academy.

“The very small numbers of graduates progressing to higher degrees from certain groups…means that very few such individuals are part of the supply ‘pipeline’ for those careers requiring postgraduate qualifications for entry,” reads the report.

“Sectors employing doctoral graduates –including, of course, higher education itself – thus face a regrettable lack of diversity in their workforce,” it adds.

The report is titled ‘Transition to higher degrees across the UK: An analysis of national, international and individual differences’.

Meanwhile within taught higher degrees, groups with Black African, Chinese and other Asian backgrounds had higher rates of progression, above white graduates and those of Indian and Pakistani ethnicity.

The study – which looked at full-time UK and EU domiciled first degree graduates completing their studies in 2009-10 and 2010-11 – also shows that women graduates progressed to postgraduate education at a lower rate than men, even taking into account difference in attainment and subject choice.

Across almost all subjects the percentage of men progressing to a taught master’s was generally around two percentage points higher than for women.

Meanwhile men’s rate of progression to research degree was “essentially twice that of women’s”, the report says. 

The figures, derived from Higher Education Statistics Agency data, also show that inequalities exist between graduates of different social class and attending different institutions.

Graduates from the 30 most selective institutions progressed to a master’s degree at one-and-a-half times the rate of those from other institutions, and to a doctorate at almost five times the rate, says the report. 

The HEA said the research, by Paul Wakeling and Gillian Hampden-Thompson at the University of York, would form a useful baseline when looking at the impact of recent increases in undergraduate fees on postgraduate study – a current focus of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

“Just as widening participation at undergraduate level reaches out to pupils in low participation neighbourhoods, there is a case for targeting high-achieving graduates from the less selective institutions,” said Dr Wakeling.

Writing in the report’s foreword, HEA chief executive Craig Mahoney said the situation “plainly isn’t good enough”.

“The postgraduate population should reflect the full range of talent and diversity in the population as a whole,” he said.

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Reader's comments (3)

This study is to be welcomed. I came to the same conclusion myself after reviewing similar data for a paper I presented at a conference last July called The Challenges Facing Black British Academics in the UK. The question to be asked now is what strategies will be adopted and what policies will be introduced to change the status quo? I am in full agreement with Dr Wakeling that more research students should be recruited from Post 1992 universities, where clearly graduates from Russell Group universities are preferred. Black British Academics is a new network for African Caribbean academics in Britain launched on April 4 and members range from masters students to senior academics with special provision for undergraduates. We at least hope that through a process of mentoring, we can encourage and offer the necessary support and guidance to help more African Caribbeans who aspire to academic careers into the academy. However, the sector needs to do much more to address the disparity identified in the study.
It's hardly surprising that recruitment into research degrees is low from post-1992 Universities for several reasons. Firstly, it's a question of disciplines. Most PhDs are in the physical and biological sciences, maths, engineering and medicine as Table 5.1 of the report shows. Since these subjects are less likely to studied at post-1992s, it's hardly surprising that their students don't go on to be research postgraduates. Secondly, students from higher ranked Universities are, on average, more academically successful than those from post-1992s. So, again, it's unsurprising that they are more likely to be recruited. If you want more Black students taking PhDs, the logical first step would be to target having more Black students take science and engineering subjects at highly ranked Universities.
I assume that the question of finance is addressed somewhere in the report. In many subjects it is now the norm for students to fund themselves through further study. Often graduates who would be highly-suited to research and would love to undertake it are, quite sensibly, unwilling to burden themselves with further loans for the doubtful hope of an academic career. Graduates who come from less wealthy backgrounds are more likely to work out the risk involved and they can observe how many lecturers with Ph.D.s are currently working on casual contracts for very low pay. I was able to study for a Ph.D. many years ago only because I was funded by a studentship; without that funding I would have had to choose a different path - but I was fortunate that state studentships were more widely available when I studied. These days higher degrees are becoming the preserve of the rich and a few who are prepared to take a huge gamble on their future. This does not augur well for the academy nor for the breadth of future research and understanding.