New research shows inequalities in progression to postgraduate study in the UK

Apr 26, 2013

In a study commissioned by the Higher Education Academy (HEA), researchers from the University of York have highlighted potentially worrying inequalities in transition to postgraduate degrees.

Dr Paul Wakeling and Dr Gillian Hampden-Thompson from York's Department of Education found women progressed to a higher degree at a lower rate than men, even when accounting for differences in attainment and subject choice. Some minority ethnic groups had very low rates of progression and there were inequalities between graduates of different social class backgrounds. The researchers also found stark differences in progression to higher degrees across different types of university.

Their report examined progression from a first degree through to postgraduate study and focused on differences in transition to higher degrees in relation to three overarching themes: institutional profile, the four UK home nations, and graduates' individual background characteristics, including gender, ethnicity and socio-.

Access to postgraduate study has received much attention recently from policy makers and higher education representative bodies, including major reports by the Higher Education Commission, government 'tsar' Alan Milburn and the National Union of Students. Commentators have pointed out the lack of research on postgraduate access and called for investigation of this area.

"Our research provides much-needed new evidence about progression to postgraduate study," said Dr Hampden-Thompson. "If we are to understand the impact of recent changes to undergraduate student funding on take-up of postgraduate degrees, we need to know about current patterns as a baseline. Our study contributes strongly to that effort."

The apparent gender inequalities which the study reports show a clear advantage for men in progressing to Masters and especially doctoral degrees. This goes against recent trends at undergraduate level, where women have been out-performing men. The authors report that gender differences are not limited to the 'STEM' disciplines (science, technology, engineering and maths), but are seen almost across the board, including in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

In terms of progression to Masters degrees, Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi groups showed lower than average rates of progression. These same two groups had 'exceptionally low' rates of progression to research degrees, with less than ten graduates from each group making this transition per academic year.

Dr Wakeling said: "While debate has focused on financial barriers to postgraduate study, we must not forget these troubling gender and ethnic inequalities. To be successful, our national research effort needs talent from all sections of society. A flourishing higher education sector has to reflect the community it serves."

The research also found substantial differences in rates of progression to higher degrees among graduates from more selective institutions, particularly for entry to research degrees. Those graduating from the 30 most selective institutions progressed to a Masters degree at one-and-a-half times the rate of those from other institutions, and to a doctorate at almost five times the rate.

"University does not appear as great a leveller as is sometimes thought," said Dr Wakeling. "Our findings suggest that progression to a PhD is being strongly determined by decisions many students make at 18 or 19. Just as widening participation at undergraduate level reaches out to pupils in low participation neighbourhoods, there is a case for targeting high-achieving graduates from the less selective institutions."

Professor Stephanie Marshall, Deputy Chief Executive (Research & Policy) at the HEA, said: "There are clear grounds for concern here. Higher education should represent the whole of our diverse society, seeking out academic talent across all groups of the population. The UK's research base is highly regarded across the world, but to remain relevant and of value must draw from a cross section of our society.

"This research is intended to provide a baseline examination of current differences and recommendations for future activity that will address these apparent inequalities. The HEA is most concerned that all sections of society have access to , and will work with the sector to examine more closely what can be done in terms of learning and teaching aspects to help improve access."

The research also found:

  • graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds were under-represented among those progressing to higher degrees;
  • institutions varied considerably in the extent to which they 'retained' their graduates entering a higher degree;
  • there is broad similarity in patterns of progression to postgraduate study across the four UK nations;
  • EU-domiciled graduates from UK universities progressed to higher degrees at considerably higher rates than UK-domiciled graduates.
The researchers also comment that on the basis of analysis within this research, there is no evidence to suggest that differences in undergraduate funding arrangements across the four UK nations are associated with different rates of progression to postgraduate study. However, they acknowledge that this was not the primary focus of this research.

They also say there was little evidence of a 'brain drain' of graduates leaving the UK to study higher degrees abroad.

Among several recommendations, the report suggests more detailed research into opportunities to progress to postgraduate degrees offered by different types of institutions, perhaps examining institutional practices in information, guidance and advice for higher degree study, institutional policies and financial packages. Pairing similar institutions which exhibit different patterns of transition to higher degrees could be a way of doing this, the report suggests.

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