Oxford receives grant to tackle inequality in postgraduate admissions
Oxford receives grant to tackle inequality in postgraduate admissions

Oxford and Cambridge win joint award to improve access to postgraduate research

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been awarded OfS/Research England funding to improve Black, Asian and minority ethnic students’ access to postgraduate research. They will collaborate on a pioneering project to re-evaluate admissions practices, developing and testing new models of selection to better identify academic potential in graduate research applicants.

A grant of £800,000 will be shared between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to tackle persistent inequalities that create barriers for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students to access and take part in postgraduate research (PGR).The two institutions will invest matching funds, and work together to develop and test a range of new admissions practices and systems designed to transform selection processes for postgraduate research and develop evidence for later sector-wide use.

The proportion of students who continue into postgraduate study and PhD is generally lower amongst those from ethnic minority backgrounds, across the UK Higher Education sector. Black, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani UK-domiciled students are particularly underrepresented in postgraduate research across all discipline groups in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. These gaps ultimately mean fewer people with minority ethnic backgrounds progress into academia as a career or into professions where a PhD is required or preferred. 

 A set of new prototype models for assessing prospective research students will be tested in 16 volunteer departments, eight in each University. These will be tailored to disciplinary needs targeting both formal and informal practices, and supporting those involved in admissions to take contextualised approaches to offer-making. Among areas to be considered will be the extent to which systems need to adapt better to take account of different student pathways and trajectories, how to better support those applying and how to support successful applicants through the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study.

Professor Martin Williams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, said: ‘We’re delighted that our joint bid with the University of Cambridge to the OfS/Research England competition to improve access to postgraduate research study for underrepresented students has been successful. 

 The University has taken significant steps in recognising the issue of graduate access in recent years, and this has become a strategic priority building on the work that has been done at undergraduate level for years.

Professor Martin Williams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education

 ‘Our Black Academic Futures programme offers full scholarships and mentoring to Black graduate students and our flagship UNIQ+ programme provides paid research internships for disadvantaged students. But for Oxford to be truly an inclusive institution, we need to do more. Our joint bid offers a unique opportunity to work with the OfS, Research England, and the sector to develop innovative practices for the selection of research students.’

 Dr Nadia Pollini, Director of Graduate Admissions and Recruitment, said: ‘In the last few years, Oxford has taken pioneering steps to address the pressing issue of graduate access. I’m very pleased with the outcome of our joint bid with Cambridge which gives us the chance to build on our existing graduate access initiatives and the pilot on selection procedures which aims to contextualise graduate admissions and reduce conscious and unconscious bias.’

 ‘I am looking forward to working with Professor David Gavaghan, Chair of the University’s Graduate Access Working Group, and Dr James Robson from the Department of Education, and our colleagues at Cambridge, to improve graduate admissions processes and to ensure equality of opportunity for all applicants.’

 Professor Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge, said:

“We are pleased to be partnering with the University of Oxford, and delighted that this OfS/RE funding competition has brought about the opportunity to share data and current practice so openly. We feel this is indicative of a wider desire across the sector to collaborate to bring about transformational change in representation in postgraduate study.”

The aim is to halve the current ‘offer gap’ in pilot departments by the end of 2025, with an aspiration to eliminate the gap altogether within one school generation (by 2035). This could double the number of UK-domiciled Black, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani applicants receiving an offer for PGR at Oxford or Cambridge.

To drive the initial four year project, the two Universities will create four new posts: two Postgraduate Widening Participation Project Co-ordinators and two post-doctoral Project Associates, one of each to be based in each University. A range of stakeholders will be consulted at every stage including a combined Cambridge-Oxford Student Panel, with a view to developing a range of new, fair postgraduate admissions processes and tools. 

The Oxford-Cambridge grant is one of 13 innovative new projects announced today by Research England and the Office for Students to be delivered over the next four years. These projects are aimed at improving access into research, and enhancing the research culture and experience, for Black, Asian and minority ethnic PGR students in UK universities.