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Attracting diversity: University of Aberdeen

Lessons learned

  • It is of paramount importance to work with student unions, associations and the wider student body when looking at equality and diversity in student recruitment. Numbers and data can show where there are gaps and inequality, but won’t identify barriers to entry for specific groups. Working with the students association(s) and speaking to students directly about their experiences is absolutely essential – especially so when trying to gather qualitative data and information that can be used in planning to help applicants overcome these barriers.
  • Clear, useful data is essential and it requires improved systems to capture each of the protected characteristics.
  • Because of limitations in this area, it is not always easy to understand and monitor equality and diversity in the context of student recruitment functions.
  • The university should also become better equipped to identify equality and diversity gaps in student recruitment. Such gaps cannot be tackled without useful high level data.
  • Although the university has good levels of activity in relation to gender imbalance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, other protected characteristics in these disciplines receive less attention.


The University of Aberdeen is an ancient university, with a diverse student population, which is recognised as one of the institution’s greatest strengths

‘The university’s vision is to strive to create an inclusive culture which celebrates the diversity of the university’s staff and students.’

University of Aberdeen Vision


The University of Aberdeen participated in this project because of its commitment to widening participation and ensuring the highest standard of equality and diversity practice in student recruitment. The aim was to build upon this strength through an increased understanding of the university’s student population, any equality and diversity issues in its recruitment processes and the experiences of current students.

Equipped with this greater understanding and awareness the university would be able to work towards addressing any gaps or issues that were identified, and develop an equality and diversity strategy for the improvement of its student recruitment functions and activities.

The institution’s team set priority objectives that would reflect and meet both the needs of the project and the university’s commitments to widening participation and equality and diversity in student recruitment.

Planned outcomes

  • Become better equipped to identify any specific difficulties that students with protected characteristics face in the recruitment process.
  • Develop an action plan to make continuous improvements in the recruitment process that would lead to a more diverse student body.
  • Participation in the programme would help the institution to increase and augment its focus on equality and diversity in student recruitment and across its widening participation activities.

Short-term objectives

  • To complete an in-depth data analysis on gender across the disciplines and colleges to provide an overview of the student population in relation to gender. Comparison with national, regional and sector benchmarks should help to provide an overview of any gaps in gender equality in the student population.
  • To start analysis of student record information and data regarding the student population and the nine protected characteristics to provide the university with an overview of any gaps in equality and diversity in the student population.
  • The identification of any gaps in the equality and diversity data held in the student record system. The identification of these gaps would inform the action plan generated by the project, and may lead to changes in the student’s records system to make it more robust.
  • A series of qualitative evaluation and research events conducted in conjunction with Aberdeen University Student Association to identify any gaps in equality, barriers to entry and ways to improve recruitment processes and services.
  • A review of student recruitment and admission’s services outreach and widening participation activities to provide a greater understanding of equality and diversity in outreach activities. This information would be used develop and implement a plan to improve these activities – and to plan new activities that will help to increase the diversity of the university’s student body.

Successes to date

Throughout the process of engaging in this project the institution has gathered a large volume of data and knowledge on equality and diversity in student recruitment.

  • Increased knowledge and understanding of the diverse make up of the student population, for example a better understanding of the gender split in each of the undergraduate degree subjects. By comparing the most recent data with historical records the project team has been able to identify potential patterns of inequality in student recruitment.
  • The project team gathered useful data on most of the protected characteristics of the most recent cohort of undergraduate entrants (2014-15 entrants).
  • The benchmarking comparisons undertaken by the project team so far have shown that the diversity of the student population is similar to that of other institutions.
  • The project team found that the institution provides a lot of outreach activities geared towards addressing gender inequality in STEM subjects. There are academic staff working on these activities across a number of disciplines.

The project’s activities have also been noted by various committees and working groups, including the working group on widening participation, the admissions working group, the equality and diversity advisory group and the university management group. Furthermore, the university admissions selectors’ involvement in the project means they are more informed about the project’s progress. As perhaps the most important decisions makers in the admissions process it was essential to have them on board, and gain their insights.


  • Gathering the necessary data. The project team’s data specialist experienced serious difficulties obtaining useful comparative data from the admissions information systems on all of the protected characteristics. The project was unable to gather high level of data on gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnerships and pregnancy and maternity.
  • Engaging with the student body and its representatives. This was attempted in May and June, but proved very difficult due to the time of year. Many of the students were unable to take part in one to one interviews and focus group due to their exam commitments.
  • Difficulties identifying STEM-orientated recruitment activities. As many of these activities happen in isolation it was difficult for the project team to have a clear picture of exactly what the university offers. This highlighted the need for a more coordinated approach to outreach and recruitment activities.

Next steps

  • The project team will create and take forward an action plan based upon the findings and outputs of the project. This plan will help the institution to address equality and diversity gaps in recruitment, help applicants to overcome barriers to entry and make other improvements.
  • Equality and diversity in student recruitment is now a permanent concern of the widening participation team. The team will continue to work with other departments and key partners to improve the institution’s performance in equality and diversity in student recruitment, and carry on the partnership with the Aberdeen University Students Association.
  • The university will seek to improve its understanding of the equality and diversity make-up of its student population. It will also improve how that data is gathered or captured, targeting in particular those protected characteristics where little information is known.