Inside Track | How do we make postgraduate research more accessible?

Professor Luke Windsor, Dean of the Leeds Doctoral College, outlines our efforts to redesign doctoral education so we can identify and support those who are excluded or ignored.

A Norman door (named after cognitive scientist Donald Norman) is a door that doesn’t work the way you expect: one that looks like it should be pulled by a handle but only opens with a push, for example. 

Such failures in design, doors that mislead, are often supplemented by signage (PUSH), which wouldn’t be needed if the way the door opened was immediately obvious. 

Becoming and being a postgraduate researcher can feel like encountering a series of Norman doors: and the ‘signage’ is often written in obscure language and hard to find. Remarkably, many postgraduate researchers pass through these doors without having to ‘read the manual’ every time they reach yet another transition point: and we know this as they tell us they don’t read the handbook! Others, however, remain constantly puzzled by these transition points, and some find the instructions baffling. When this happens, we often blame the user (or their supervisor): you should know how things work, you should have read the manual…

This, however, is a design failure, and an egregious one because the implicit knowledge needed to access or succeed in doctoral education is not equally distributed.

Work to address inequity could and should be a fundamental design goal of future higher education (see Grabill, Gretter and Skogsberg, 2022: Design for Change in Higher Education). We cannot claim a goal of addressing global inequality with any authority if we cannot close the participation gaps in our own institutions. Moreover, we cannot build an academic staff culture more representative of our society without a more diverse pool of doctoral graduates. No amount of positive action in our staff recruitment and promotion policies and practices can offset a lack of qualified applicants from minoritised groups. 

There has been a huge and positive change in the gender balance of academic staff and postgraduate researchers in the UK: but Black, Asian and other minority ethnic students aren’t progressing to doctoral study in sufficient numbers, and it isn’t their fault. Don’t tell me that minoritised groups lack the potential to succeed – help me redesign doctoral education so we can identify and support those who are excluded or ignored by universities but could benefit from a higher degree.

Why do I care? What should we do?

Well before I became Dean of the Leeds Doctoral College, I started to think about how we might address this issue. On the way, I’ve learnt much from interactions with colleagues and students here, including Louise Banahene, Penelope Sucharitkul, Iyiola Soyanke and Pippa Chapman, and from my experiences as a Pro-Dean for Student Education and Deputy Dean. But it was a talk given by Amatey Doku at the British Academy that set me on this specific route. He presented a stark possible future; one in which the UK became increasingly good at addressing issues of equity, but higher education lagged behind, remaining stubbornly out of step with the communities it exists to serve.

Our passion for equity must be tempered with root cause analysis and an evidence-based set of solutions, tested and refined with input from a community of included and excluded stakeholders. That’s why we’re working with colleagues here and across the sector to ensure we understand the problem of participation from a range of perspectives, and develop interventions that will have a sustainable impact. To this end, we’re supporting the development of positive action scholarships, but more importantly we’ve set targets for recruitment of minoritised postgraduate researchers that balance ambition and opportunity, also planning a set of longer-term actions that don’t rely on scholarship funding alone. 

Holistic approach to equity

The approach we’re taking to closing the gaps in postgraduate research participation is holistic, both in regard to people and processes. It’s pointless working to improve our admissions systems and processes if we and external funders only provide financial support to applicants who identify as White British; and equally pointless providing targeted scholarships to potential applicants that are deterred not by financial considerations but by the culture they expect to find in a research-intensive university. And there’s even less justification for taking positive action to recruit a Black British postgraduate researcher for them to discover that the culture of their institution is directly or structurally biased against them. 

This need to be holistic means teams that normally work in parallel within Doctoral College Operations and the wider Student Education Service, Educational Engagement, Strategy and Planning must work together to ensure we take every opportunity to deliver the actions that meet our stated objectives. That’s why we’re investing in additional staffing within Educational Engagement to support this work, bringing both subject expertise and coordination across our teams. 

Likewise, all these essential professional services need to inform, and be informed, by the academic missions of our different disciplines. Fortunately, our Graduate Board and Research and Innovation Board have both driven and endorsed this effort, and provide (along with the Access and Student Success Board) clear oversight and direction. 

We’re also working with other institutions and with individuals from outside Higher Education. We will learn useful lessons from others about the effectiveness of different interventions by casting our net this wide. However radical our proposed changes in culture or process, we need to gather evidence from a wide range of existing and potential stakeholders, as well as prototyping any redesign we want to introduce. To that end, we will not only work with institutional partners, both regionally and internationally, but also with existing, past and potential postgraduate researchers, as well as those who can help us refine and communicate our research degrees to suit a broader range of prospective applicants. 

Moreover, it would be immoral for us to close our institutional gaps in representation at the expense of other higher education institutions (HEIs), or in ways that don’t serve the needs of those under-represented groups. That’s why the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education (YCEDE) works across a range of regional HEIs in the spirit of collaboration, not competition. 

Let’s redesign some doors… 

Useful contacts and resources

Please contact Professor Luke Windsor if you would like to contribute in any way to the plans outlined above.

Visit the YCEDE website for further information about its work.

Our work is held to account as part of the Access and Student Success Strategy (please note this hyperlink opens as a PDF). Read our new Access and Student Success Annual Report to find out how we made progress against our targets in 2020/21. You can also visit our new Student Success webpages to find out more about how we’re supporting students to succeed at Leeds. 

Read our previous Inside Tracks in this series, focussing on breaking down barriers to access and student success and the importance of academic personal tutoring.

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