The School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester shares its progress on increasing the representation and experience of BME students on its postgraduate courses ( as part of Advance HE's Increasing Diversity project).
The School conducted extensive qualitative and quantitive research before implementing a mixture of positive action scholarships and changes to course design, delivery and promotion.
The School of Museum Studies has a long-standing interest in equality and diversity which infuses all aspects of its day-to-day practices: from our vision and values to our supportive and non-heirarchical study and research culture. We have a lead role in institution-wide initiatives to design and deliver accessible and inclusive curricula, we hold a 2014 Athena SWAN Bronze Award and we established a School Diversity and Equality Working Group. We also have a a suite of research projects spanning more than 25 years that actively address museums’ engagement with disability, race, class, and sexual and gender diversity.
At the same time though, recruitment of students remains unrepresentative of the wider population and mirrors, in many respects, the inequalities of participation that are evident in the museum sector where workforce diversity has been subject to long standing debate.
What’s been tried before?
From 1998 to 2011, the School was a key partner in a national scheme known as Diversify!, led by the Museums Association, to increase opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to enter and develop careers in the museum sector. The scheme – that involved 130 individuals and 50 museums – focused on the use of positive action to recruit, train and support people from underrepresented groups. This approach had a positive impact on the sector, however recent studies (Sullivan 2015; Brown 2015) confirm that much more remains to be done and workforce diversity has re-emerged as an increasingly pressing issue for the sector at large.
In light of this and to support the School’s ambition to continue to address inequalities of participation in new, impactful and sustainable ways, the School joined Advance HE’s (then ECU) UK-wide Increasing Diversity project to tackle underrepresentation of key groups in student populations.
Early on in the project we honed and agreed a vision statement and underpinning rationale:
“Our aim is to attract more UK BME (Black and minority ethnic) students on the postgraduate taught programmes in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and support them to develop their careers and thrive in the cultural sector.”
We are committed to this aim primarily because;
- BME professionals are under-represented in the UK sector workforce and the lack of workforce diversity remains a key concern for sector bodies;
- The School’s core values and University’s strategic vision recognise the value of a diverse student body, actively engaged with addressing inequalities in all spheres of life;
- We are committed to stimulating wider commitment to diversity and equality in the University and museum sectors.
Our long-term aim is to attract and support a student body that better reflects the demographics of the UK and can better support the needs of museums to employ a more diverse workforce.
Our working group included representatives from the University’s Equalities and Diversity and Widening Participation teams, and the University’s postgraduate admissions and Marketing teams, as it was agreed that cross-departmental involvement would enable a more holistic approach to be taken, and would support the embedding of lessons learned across the institution as a whole. We proceeded with the full support of the University’s senior leadership team.
In order to identify and explore the reasons for underrepresentation of BME students, we undertook both quantitative and qualitative research focusing on 1) investigating current admissions data (including review of the different stages of the admissions process) and 2) exploring graduate experiences. The latter included taking BME graduates’ views on ways to increase access for future BME students.
Our investigation of quantitative data on admissions and course profile revealed the under-representation of BME students, which was particularly low at around 2-5% of the cohort between 2011 and 2015. However, we noticed significantly higher representation in 2009. We also saw a significant increase to 10% of Home students identifying as BME after the full 2016 admissions round. We feel these higher percentages in 2009 and after 2016 are directly linked to our use of positive action at these times, showing the impact of positive action through scholarships on increasing BME diversity.
The quantitative data also revealed a lower conversion rate from application stage to registration among BME applicants (with around 48% of BME applicants registering compared to around 62% of non-BME applicants between 2009 and 2016), suggesting additional barriers may be present at an early stage of the admissions process. Although it is hard to generalise on the reasons for this difference, the data pointed to the potential for greater nurturing of enquirers and applicants from BME backgrounds to support them to proceed through the process, and to more actively elicit and address questions or concerns that they may have.
Our qualitative research into BME graduate experiences both as students on our courses and in their subsequent museum careers pointed to a number of issues around BME visibility and ongoing support. Taken together, the interviews with graduates raised a series of further questions to take forward:
- How might the school further embed and cement values of diversity?
- What measures can staff across the school take to ensure that diverse perspectives and visible difference are embedded in the curriculum?
- How might we rethink scholarships, in light of the points raised by the report, with an emphasis on mentorship and skills?
- How might the school support students’ career when they leave?
- How far can the school exert influence over practice in the rest of the sector?
We used the findings from this research to identify and implement measures to remove or overcome barriers to BME student participation. To attract and support more diverse applicants we:
- Reviewed and extended our use of positive action for our Anniversary Scholarship scheme, relaunching them as Open and Diversity scholarships. These provide four partial scholarships valued at £3,000 each for students from a range of under-represented groups including those from BME backgrounds, those with a disability, and those from lower socio-economic groups. These are available across all of our postgraduate diploma and Masters programmes, and both distance learning and campus-based students are eligible.
- Carried out a fundamental review of our various curricula to increase and enhance the representation of under-represented groups and perspectives. This work also drew on the findings of our broader work on the inclusive and accessible curriculum and on engagement with debates in the HE and museum sectors surrounding decolonising curricula. As a result, we increased the number of teachers from non-white backgrounds, we created new teaching resources and videos profiling decolonising initiatives and debates in the museum sector, we included subtitled and BSL signed resources, and we designed new assignments to ensure students engage with scholarship from people with a range of lived experiences.
- Reviewed external communications to ensure these reflected our commitment to nurturing a diverse student body
- Shared our findings to colleagues to embed learning and build institution-wide support. For example, we presented to our Diversity and Equality Working Group and our full teaching team, shared findings at University-wide EDI workshops, and presented to academic committees. More specifically, we have used learning from this project to inform other equality developments, for example our newly launched Disability Action and Awareness Group (DAAG) which takes an active and anticipatory approach to developing inclusive assessments, timetabling, and student support.
Successes so far
- There has been an increase in BME student numbers, from around 4% to 10% of our total UK/Home fees cohort from 2015 to 2017.
- Our Diversity Scholarship applicants who are unsuccessful in being awarded a scholarship typically continue to register with us despite this, suggesting a strong commitment to studying with us.
- Our positive action Diversity Scholarships have received external funding support, enabling us to continue to run them for a significant number of additional years.
- By December 2018 we will carry out a thorough analysis of the impact of this project and the measures we have taken, using data to explore BME student representation across courses; BME attainment; and the effects of scholarships on different eligible groups.
- We will continue to review external communications to ensure they reflect our commitments to supporting a more diverse sector.
- We will explore opportunities to build understanding and support for positive action across the museum sector.
- We will explore how our graduate network (MS Connect) can support our work in this area (explore opportunities for mentoring support and support from wider networks).
What we’ve learned as a team
As a team, we have recognised the value of rigorous evidence and data from which to develop initiatives that overcome barriers to participation.
We have learned that tackling the barriers to participation are almost certain to require multiple, intersecting efforts rather than single track solutions (for example, the use of positive action scholarships are a powerful way to address underrepresentation but must also be accompanied by fundamental changes in the way courses are designed, delivered and promoted in order to create an environment in which BME students can thrive and flourish).
We have better understood the importance of identifying and embedding measures in ways that are visible and sustainable in the longer term and across the institution.