Widening Access: From research to strategy to action

Original illustration by Shuning Ji, Edinburgh College of Art student

In this post, Diane Gill discusses how the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) endeavoured to further develop strategies for widening participation and equality, diversity and inclusion. Diane Gill is the Head of Strategy and Operations at SGSSS and this post is part of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: Showcasing the Doctoral College.

The Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) is the UK’s largest doctoral training partnership. We are a partnership of 16 universities (hosted by the University of Edinburgh) that combine resources to offer studentships, training, internships and many other opportunities for doctoral researchers, supporting over 4000 students.

During our ESRC Mid Term Review in November 2019, we received a strong steer to further develop Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and Widening Participation (WP) strategies. It was a fair comment – although minimising barriers to participation was very much in our ethos (e.g. we’ve always provided financial assistance to attend our events and more recently offered studentships and internships on a part-time basis), we didn’t have a strategy and you wouldn’t find any references to EDI or WP on our website.

Our journey to change this began properly moving in September 2020 when Hannah Gormley, came on board for a 6 month part-time PhD internship to undertake some research with the aim of contributing to an evidence base and making recommendations that would support SGSSS to develop effective policies and interventions to minimise barriers to participation both into and during postgraduate research study.

A copy of Hannah’s report is available on the SGSSS website and I’d strongly encourage anyone with an interest in this area to have a read. In SGSSS, we have used the findings to develop our strategy the highlights of which I’ve outlined below.

Democratisation of information

It was pretty shocking to discover that in November 2020 (2 months before our application deadline) 83% of almost 300 survey respondents who were all potential PhD applicants in Social Science in Scotland had not accessed the SGSSS website. There clearly is more to be done to make sure our partner universities have consistent information that refers students on to us. This is not a simple process – in Edinburgh alone, you’re looking at school websites for 15 disciplines as well as the central admissions pages. Most universities also tend to focus on the application process rather than securing funding (how many people can actually explain the distinction?)

When they do finally get there, we need to make our content more accessible – yes we have very detailed guidance – perhaps so comprehensive it puts off those already intimidated by a competitive landscape. There’s no quick access to the basics: How long does a PhD last? How does funding work? This is something we’re already changing, for example, we ran a successful webinar last November addressing these fundamental questions and are planning to put short clips online as well as in a format to share in honours/PGT classes.

Whole Person Approach

The other area where we are making significant changes is moving towards a whole person approach to assessing doctoral funding applications. For example, our assessment criteria will now explicitly refer to potential to flourish as well as academic and professional achievements. Enabling this are changes to/addition of questions that aim to draw out attributes demonstrated in an applicant’s background and challenges they have overcome. Vignettes will give exemplars of how our scoring matrix might operate in practice including examples of the type of contextual information we’d encourage candidates to include.

We’ve also removed the requirement of a first class in order to obtain the highest scoring band and adapted the reference template – making it more appropriate for non-academic referees.

Standardised Data

The lack of standardised data for widening participation to PGR is referred to frequently in the report. In its absence, we need to develop an evaluation framework that both allows us to assess the success of changes we’re implementing but also monitors key widening access markers over time. The challenge around data is one of the reasons we’ve chosen not to consider positive action at present (i.e. ringfencing studentships) as we’re not confident that we have the data to support this across all groups that we believe to be under-represented. For example, we have a fair idea about our BAME statistics but we don’t currently have a way of tracking social class.

Celebrating and supporting the diversity of our PhD population

One thing that struck us early on was that although we have always had an ethos towards widening access, it’s by no means obvious. Making our assessment process more transparent is one step towards this, another is creating a section of our website that showcases the stories of our current students, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds. Alongside this, we want to work much closer with our students to better support minority groups. We’ve already started doing this by having student reps involved in developing the whole person approach and it’s been brilliant – it really brings a whole new perspective and energy.

To finish off, some advice for others looking at this area.

  1. Never assume and listen to as many voices as you can. Through Hannah’s research we uncovered very basic things we just hadn’t considered (e.g. that people weren’t getting to the SGSSS website and hadn’t heard of us/ESRC)
  2. Tell people what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It turned out that many of our assessors were already bought into a whole person approach ethos but because it was an ‘ethos’ rather than a policy nothing was written down (so students didn’t believe it) and behaviour contrary to the ethos could proceed without being challenged.
  3. Don’t be afraid to suggest the radical. We never expected our stakeholders to be prepared to remove the first class requirement or include ‘flourishing’ alongside academic achievement. Yet we found we were pushing against an open door.
  4. Data matters! In the absence of standard data for all underrepresented groups it’s very hard to fully justify what you’re doing in terms of positive action. Decide on your priorities and make sure you collect relevant data to justify actions.
  • Hannah Gormley’s report Widening Access and Valuing Diversity in SGSSS is available on the website.

Diane Gill

Diane Gill is Head of Strategy and Operations at the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science.

Shuning Ji

Shuning Ji is an illustrator and comic artist from Beijing and now based in Edinburgh. She currently is studying MA illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. She has a very strong interest on storytelling through character design and sequential art. Her work also had been chosen to display in Migration Museum. Her partners in many industries include publishing houses, museums, hospitals and private companies. In the latter half of 2021, she has two comic books that will be published in China and the UK. Currently she is dedicated to creating graphic novels as well as character designs

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