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The case for equity-minded doctoral recruitment and selection

In this blog, Professor Paul Wakeling and Dr Bukola Oyinloye (University of York) set out the challenges to racial equity in UK doctoral admissions. They argue that how and who we select for entry to PhD degrees is a critical part of achieving a more racially just and successful research sector and outline what the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education (YCEDE) is doing to address this.

There is powerful evidence that British graduates from certain racially minoritised groups are systematically underrepresented among those doing postgraduate research in UK universities. The situation one of us outlined in research nearly 15 years ago remains similar today. UK-domiciled White British and Chinese-heritage graduates increase their proportional representation at research degree level, whereas Black and South Asian groups fall off, in some cases sharply. The Leading Routes collective demonstrated, in their compelling 2019 report, that these trends are substantially magnified in the allocation of research council scholarships (called studentships). Alarmingly, just 30 of the nearly 20,000 studentships allocated in the period they examined went to students identifying as from a Black British Caribbean background.

This stark underrepresentation of parts of the UK population in doctoral research poses (at least) three significant problems.  One, it is a waste of talent, since it means many potential future researchers who could have contributed to understanding and addressing the major problems of our times – social, economic, technological, environmental or medical – are lost to research. Two, current and future research challenges need input from people from different backgrounds and with diverse experiences. Without this, researchers risk focussing mainly on problems which affect people like them and who share a similar set of assumptions.

Third, and above all, underrepresentation on the basis of race/ethnicity is not fair. Research careers are very often interesting and fulfilling. While many would argue that research jobs could be better paid compared to similar professions, nevertheless most researchers earn a reasonable salary and, again with some reservations, have relatively good working conditions. Researchers have the scope to influence knowledge creation and, collectively, the agenda of public debate in many domains. As the entry qualification to this work, it is vital that PhD degrees are open to all on the basis of talent and motivation.

Evidence from the USA offers some ideas of how to address underrepresentation. In her pioneering study of graduate admissions in US universities, sociologist Julie Posselt highlighted how a racial offer gap opened up among doctoral candidates. She found graduate school admissions committees expressed a desire to admit a racially diverse class, but through the often rigid selection criteria they adopted, ended up excluding those from minoritised backgrounds in the first sift. Crucially, this use of criteria typically failed to account for contextual factors in applicants’ academic and personal histories, and/or used criteria which were indicators of differential opportunities rather than differential potential. Dr Posselt’s evidence challenges a ‘deficit’ explanation, which would see underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as the result of weaker applications, turning the lens instead back on how the dice of merit are loaded in favour of overrepresented groups.

Our work on doctoral admissions in YCEDE is at an early stage, but we see some similarities to the US evidence in application patterns. Institutional data points to a clear ‘offer gap’ between White British doctoral applicants and those from racially minoritised groups. Closing this gap, even without attracting a greater proportion of applications from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic graduates, would considerably reduce overall underrepresentation. But how to do it?

In YCEDE, our three principal work packages follow the doctoral lifecycle to embed equity at each stage. Together with a set of colleagues across our five partner universities, our focus is the process from application to enrolment. To become a doctoral researcher, a graduate must apply and be made an offer of a place (and often, funding too). We know the ethnicity of first-degree and master’s graduates, and we also know the ethnicity of enrolled PhD students, which differs in the ways outlined above. What we don’t understand well is what happens in between. Unlike UCAS for undergraduates, there is no national application system for PhD places, so we do not know who applies or who gets an offer.

Working with a set of pilot schools, Doctoral Training Partnerships and Centres for Doctoral Training, we are investigating the selection criteria and practices in use, to identify where they may be acting against equity. Dr Posselt, who now leads a national consortium on equity in graduate education – advocates the use of holistic review in selecting doctoral students which moves beyond cognitive attributes to consider their non-cognitive or personal attributes as well. Therefore, a key question we are asking in YCEDE is: what are the fundamental qualities which institutions seek in doctoral students? Early indications are that there is an important set of skills and aptitudes (including curiosity, resilience and adaptability) which often get overlooked or buried under a strong emphasis on academic grades. Recalibrating criteria accordingly could help to diversify the pool of successful applicants.

It’s complex work, but that is perhaps to be expected given the complexity of research itself. Like doing research, we can’t at this stage be sure of what we will find, or that everything we try will work. However, by seeking to improve and learn from our work, from our students and from different parts of this and other projects,  we are collectively committed to changing doctoral admissions for the better.