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Exploring EDI issues in higher education from a postgraduate perspective

25 Mar 2024 | Dr Hannah Helm, Dr David Junior Gilbert and Keren Poliah Dr Hannah Helm, Dr David Junior Gilbert and Keren Poliah, from the University of Salford, presented posters at last year’s Advance HE’s Teaching and Learning Conference. Here, they share how they are addressing issues relating to widening participation, international postgraduate researchers and inclusive doctoral research within UK higher education, and their experience of presenting.

This joint blog post outlines key equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues within higher education (HE) through case studies at the University of Salford which we presented at Advance HE’s Teaching and Learning Conference 2023. Our joint poster presentation outlined how student experiences relating to widening participation, international learners and inclusive research can be addressed and improved through changes to pedagogical practice and enhanced support systems.  

We believe that introducing timely EDI issues – communicated through first-hand, interdisciplinary and collaborative postgraduate perspectives – will help others to reflect on their own practices and implement strategies that can be used to support university students and challenge systemic barriers. 

Presenting at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2023 was a wonderful experience. We felt the conference was very welcoming, well-organised, and accessible to researchers with different needs; in particular, we felt that the feedback from our poster was very positive, with practitioners appreciating our unique researcher perspectives as both postgraduate students and staff at the university. We would be delighted to present at further Advance HE conferences and events in the future! 

Widening Participation in Research 

Dr Hannah Helm, Lecturer in English Literature (University of Salford) and North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership EDI Advocate (University of Manchester) 

My project focused on strategies for breaking down barriers to research to provide opportunities for students from underrepresented backgrounds.  

At the University of Salford, widening participation (WP) efforts encourage participation of underrepresented groups in HE, and the following WP criteria are highlighted as the main areas of importance:  

  • care leavers 
  • ethnically minoritised students 
  • students from a POLAR quantile 1 or 2 target postcode (geographical areas where access to HE is low)  
  • mature students (aged 21 or over when completing first undergraduate degree) 
  • students who identify as having a disability 
  • estranged students (studying without family support) 
  • first-generation learners (first in family to enter HE).  

At the University, 76% of the undergraduate population currently come from WP backgrounds such as these.  

To bolster WP efforts for underrepresented students from these groups, I designed and delivered a ‘Widening Participation Summer Programme’ in July 2023. The scheme aimed to reduce barriers to participation and inspire students to pursue further postgraduate study.  

I recruited 12 second-year undergraduate students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in research across the four Schools: School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology, School of Health and Society, School of Science, Engineering and Environment, and Salford Business School. The students then worked with 12 academics on various paid research projects from digitising library archives and investigating access to health services for transgender people, to researching anti-cancer drugs.  

To maximise the benefits for participating students, I developed a complementary series of Training and Professional Development workshops to enhance students’ academic and interpersonal skills, which were focused on the following topics: 

  • research skills and tips 
  • managing supervisor relationships 
  • embedding EDI into research practice 
  • mental health and wellbeing.  

The Summer Programme aimed to create a collaborative, creative and supportive research environment for students and was hugely successful. I will deliver the Summer Programme again in 2024. 


International Postgraduate Researchers 

Dr David Junior Gilbert, University Fellow in FASD and the Justice System (University of Salford) 

My project focused on understanding the needs of international postgraduate researchers (PGR) in settling into the UK academic setting. In addition to understanding these needs, my mandate was to assist stakeholders within the University (and beyond) to understand these needs and proffer possible interventions that could support international PGRs.  

To achieve these objectives, I started with University-wide consultations with decision makers by attending several senior leadership meetings and discussing the proposed project in a bid to increase allyship.  

An ethics application was also made for the project from which a quantitative survey was commissioned for PGRs to provide input about their support needs. An example of the survey questions include: ‘How satisfied are you with the support the University has given you to settle into UK academia and your postgraduate research studies?’. Following the survey, I organised focus groups to further understand the needs of international PGRs using open-ended questions, for example: ‘How do you think the University, as an institution, could support you better? What do you need in the form of support to settle better into your PGR study?’.  

These two activities (survey and focus groups) provided a platform for an understanding of the needs of PGRs in settling into academia in the UK. The findings from the project will be published in a peer-reviewed journal to provide insight to the wider HE sectors.  

With respect to interventions, a ‘buddy scheme’ is being piloted for international PGRs. This scheme provides an opportunity for new international PGRs to be paired with existing colleagues based on region and other matched characteristics. The volunteer ‘buddies’ provide friendship and peer-level (non-academic) support to new PGRs for the first three weeks of study, and consent is sought from new international PGRs before enrolment into the pilot scheme. Hopefully, the ‘buddy scheme’ will be carried forward, tested and evaluated for its efficacy in assisting new international PGRs settle easily into academia.  

Alongside Hannah and Keren, I have also been involved in organising and running a PGR peer support group where peer-to-peer discussions are held, and wisdom shared, among the general PGR community. 


Decolonising Postgraduate Research 

Keren Poliah, Researcher at the Learning & Teaching Enhancement Centre (University of Salford) 

My project raised questions about the traditional Anglo-centric thesis by raising awareness of decolonising methods within research and practice to encourage a more malleable, diverse and inclusive PhD. 

I created space for the subaltern in postgraduate research to study Indigenous tribes, reframe past colonial history and to understand the forces of colonialism within research disciplines. My project promoted dialogue to foster empathic engagement and bridge cultural divides by organising an online international symposium in April 2023 with speakers from Austria, India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK. Speakers shared their experiences with decolonising their self, practice or thesis.  

Following the symposium, I obtained ethics approval to carry out research with postgraduate researchers from the University of Salford. My qualitative research highlights the importance of decolonising the PhD; the findings present narratives from postgraduates as they navigate decolonising the thesis by engaging with reflections, self-awareness and a celebration of cultural differences. The narratives from the interviews are then constructed to build on EDI training for postgraduates and supervisors. The training enables postgraduates to see their research, thesis and supervisory relationship through a decolonising lens. In addition, supervisors receiving the training can understand how to better support their students with inclusive, decolonising and less conventional theses.  

Since the projects ended in October 2023, Hannah is continuing the Widening Participation Summer Programme in July 2024 (with capacity to support 29 students this year rather than 12); Keren has published her findings in a peer-reviewed article for the The February Journal; and Gilbert's project has widely contributed to the student experience of International PGRs at the University of Salford by implementing the "buddy scheme". 

These three EDI projects were financially supported by the Doctoral School at the University of Salford.


Dr Hannah Helm, Dr David Junior Gilbert, and Keren Poliah currently manage, and collaborate on, three EDI projects: ‘Widening Participation in Research’ (Hannah), ‘International Postgraduate Researchers’ (Gilbert), and ‘Decolonising Postgraduate Research’ (Keren). All three academics work at the University of Salford. 

You may also be interested in the upcoming EDI related events:

Inclusive Leadership Programme

Start Date: 14 May 2024 Find out more

EDI Colloquium: Pedagogies of Liberation: Challenge, change, compassion, collaboration

Date: 18 June 2024, In-person Find out more

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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