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Three principles to tackle underrepresentation in your institution

Published: 07/12/2016

Third blog post from Senior Policy Adviser Chris Brill on the underrepresentation of particular groups in higher education and how these inequalities should, and are, being tackled.

ChrisB website newAlthough many institutions have made high-level commitments to widening access, it has been a challenge to translate these into effective practice with measurable outcomes. As I have written previously, considering your local context and exploring a range of potential barriers to access are key to developing effective practice. But what else?

ECU, supported by consultant Professor Liz Thomas, has been working with a number of institutions who are all committed to attracting students from underrepresented groups and increasing student diversity. Although in the early stages of the work, there are three principles that they have been following which we would recommend all institutions adopt.

1     Be subject specific and set realistic timescales

The institutions ECU have been working with are looking to develop initiatives across a range of subjects including healthcare, education, media and museum studies. Each, however, are initially targeting specific subjects, keeping their projects manageable and allowing them to focus time and resources to the most effective activity. Having a localised, subject specific research gathering phase as part of the work allows the approach and methodology developed to be rolled out to other areas once proven successful.

2     Put together a holistic team

Increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups cannot be achieved simply by staff working in student recruitment. Making a difference to numbers will require thinking about the different elements of the student journey, including pre-application, the learning environment, graduate outcomes and transitions into employment. Institutions involved in the work with ECU have therefore brought together colleagues from across the institution to discuss issues of equality and access (for example student recruitment, WP, marketing, equality and diversity, academics, careers services) to ensure a whole institution approach to tackling underrepresentation. Doing so provides an opportunity for complementary departments to learn about each other’s existing activity and levels of staff engagement, and to identify shared interests and priorities.

3     Align with strategic priorities

As mentioned here, there are a number of government targets around widening participation. In addition to these, institutions will be considering student recruitment in relation to their current equality objectives, OFFA access agreements, requirements in the TEF and inevitably the outcome of the EU referendum.  Aligning work to these strategic priorities will support institutions in clarifying their institutional vision, and help engage senior staff to ensure adequate resources and priority are given to the work.

Register for our lunchtime webinar

On 14 December 12:30 – 13:30 we have organised a lunchtime webinar for colleagues in the sector to hear from the institutions ECU has been working with. The session will highlight some of the different ways to gather quantitative and qualitative evidence on underrepresentation, the challenges and opportunities around working in this area, and some of the reasons they have found why some groups are underrepresented in particular subjects. Register now to attend.