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Attracting and Increasing Student Diversity

HEIs across the country and colleges in Scotland are being asked to prioritise widening access and increasing student diversity across a range of equality characteristics and socioeconomic backgrounds.

It can be challenging to translate high-level commitments to widen access into effective practice with measurable outcomes.

Advance HE, supported by consultant Prof Liz Thomas, is working with a number of higher education institutions (HEIs) in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as colleges in Scotland, to help attract and increase student diversity, to develop more inclusive approaches and to be better able to target underrepresented groups.

In 2014/15, Advance HE worked with Scottish HEIs piloting an action learning approach. The initial findings from this work are detailed below, and in the case studies on the right of this page. Building on this, we are now looking at longer-term initiatives with 13 HEIs and 10 colleges in Scotland over the next 3 years.

Barriers Faced by Underrepresented or Disadvantaged Groups

For the rest of the UK, in summer 2016  ECU commenced work with a number of HEIs around barriers faced by underrepresented or disadvantaged groups at their universities (or in specific courses, departments or levels) including:

  • Men into healthcare
  • Black and minority ethnic (BME) students into:
    • Teaching and education studies
    • Undergraduate Arts & Humanities
    • Postgraduate Museum Studies
    • Media
  • Female students into engineering
  • Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), mental health difficulties, or on the autism spectrum

The project focused on designing collaborative teams from across the institution to bring together qualitative and quantitative research to inform specific interventions (using positive action provisions of the Equality Act 2010 where appropriate).

The end of programme summary report will be available Spring 2020.

Attracting diversity: advice from pilot HEIs

Identifying Underrepresentation

During the 2015/15 pilot in Scotland, all four institutions prioritised data analysis, qualitative research and review, followed by targeted action planning. Understanding their current position has been crucial for identifying the priorities for future work.

  • HEIs found evidence of underrepresentation by students with protected characteristics, and in particular by gender in specific subject areas, highlighting the need for further examination and the potential to improve participation rates.
  • Most underrepresentation for equality groups can be seen in differences in application rates, suggesting barriers to access appear early in the education 'pipeline'.
  • This underrepresentation may appear very early in institutional processes, for example with who attends open days. It is important to pin-point the most effective places in the applicant and student lifecycles for intervention, as well as what approaches would be effective.
  • Analysis which focused on the differential between applications and offers found that socioeconomic background (as categorised by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – SIMD) may more significant than protected characteristics in offer making. This highlights the importance of intersectionality and the inter-relationships between student characteristics.

Developing Evidence on Barriers to Access

  • Analyse institutional application, offer and acceptance data. Look for differential rates of application, offers and acceptances associated with protected characteristics, relationships between student characteristics, (eg gender and participation in specific subject areas) and intersections between protected characteristics and socioeconomic status.
  • Identify possible barriers to entry by comparing rates of offer and entry by different protected characteristics and socioeconomic background using survey data and statistical analysis.
  • Review open day, application and student survey data (including induction and student experience surveys) to identify who was participating and what their experience was compared to the whole cohort.
  • Explore the pre- and post-entry experiences of students with protected characteristics through qualitative research, possibly in collaboration with the students’ association.
  • Review the inclusivity of outreach and recruitment activities.
  • Develop an action plan to address issues identified in the data analysis, qualitative research and/or review of practice.

Impact on Practice

The pilot HEIs have committed to a programme of action based on their 2014/15 work, including the longer term development of evidence based positive action initiatives to increase participation for target groups. However, there are a number of areas where impact can be seen, even at this early stage.

University of Aberdeen

  • Institutional data systems are being improved to capture data about all protected characteristics.
  • Improving equality and diversity in recruitment is now an integral part of the work of the widening participation team, and is a permanent standing issue on the university’s widening participation working group.

University of Dundee

  • The work of the project illuminated the current demographic distribution of students and this is beginning to inform discussions about how the university feels about this distribution, while also raising awareness that the university has a duty to evenly promote provision to all.

University of St Andrews

  • The project provided insight into comparative diversity of the student population and prompted institutional action.

University of Strathclyde

  • Equality and recruitment data is being used to promote discussion at faculty level, where there is more variation, and may result in changes to local practices.
  • The findings of data analysis confirms the institution’s approach to using Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation data to target pre- and post-entry interventions.
  • Targeted work has been started to increase attendance at open days by those who are currently underrepresented within the institution.

Top Tips

Build a cross-institutional team

  • Engage senior staff to ensure adequate resources and priority are given to the work
  • It is very useful to bring together colleagues from across the institution to discuss issues of equality and access. This includes working with different professional services, academic departments and student organisations.
  • It provides an opportunity for complementary departments to learn about each other’s work and to identify shared interests and priorities.

‘Perhaps the most important instance of wider engagement across the institution brought about by participation in this project was the working relationship that was developed between Aberdeen University Student’s Association (AUSA) and the widening participation team … The student presidents, and their colleagues, brought invaluable knowledge and access to this project. Without ASUS input it would have been far more difficult to achieve many of the desired outcomes of the project.’

University of Aberdeen

Scale of the project

  • Keep the project manageable to focus time and resources to the most effective activity; the approach and methodology can be rolled out to other areas once proven successful

Working with and learning from other HEIs

  • Hearing about and comparing work of one institution with that of others is helpful and can prompt institutions to look at other aspects of work.

'Spending time with the other institutional teams and hearing about their projects has helped develop our own work.'

University of Strathclyde

Understand your data and develop robust evidence on specific barriers to access

  • Make use of existing data

Data can be sourced from existing annual induction and student experience surveys.

HEIs made use of existing surveys to conduct further analysis, and were able to insert additional questions or categories in to existing surveys to reduce the burden on the project team.

  • Recognise the limitations of data

If you use end of cycle application data, any applicant withdrawing during the cycle will not be included in the results. Awareness of such behaviour would be informative in attempting to understand potential barriers.

You may not have information about all of the protected characteristics, and may need to collect additional information on these areas.

  • Triangulate local, contextual evidence on barriers to access, such as statistics on applications and offers or findings from qualitative research, with national evidence sources and research findings
  • Timing

It can be difficult to collect qualitative data from students at certain points of the year, so planning is required.

‘The project team tried to engage with representatives of the student body in May and June – unfortunately this proved to be a very difficult time of year to arrange anything with the students.’

University of Aberdeen