Skip to content

Widening participation within postgraduate research degree programmes – in practice…

In 2021, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) was awarded funding by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) for a new programme of studentships for training the next generation of health scientists. The programme – the London Intercollegiate Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) – is run in partnership with St George’s, University of London (SGUL) and provides high-quality PhD training across the spectrum of biomedical and public health research. 

Having recently completed its first round of recruiting to the studentships, we thought it would be a good time to ask more about the programme and especially how they are widening participation! So we spoke to Lara Crawford, Scholarships Manager (LSHTM), and MRC LID EDI Leads – Dr. Elizabeth Brickley (LSHTM) and Dr. Vanessa Ho (SGUL). 

To start with could you provide a bit of background to the doctoral training programme? 

The programme builds on successes of a previous doctoral training partnership between LSHTM and SGUL which had administered 66 studentships between 2016 and 2022. Through the latest round of MRC funding confirmed in 2021, LSHTM and SGUL will be able to fund six PhD students a year for up to four years under the themes of global health, health data science, infectious disease and translational and implementation research. A further three PhD students a year will be funded by the two institutions. The studentship covers tuition fees, stipends, and annual funding for research training, travel, and conference.  Students also have the opportunity to apply for competitive flexible funding for fieldwork, public engagement projects and a 3-month internship. 

We are aware of working happening across the higher education sector to tackle gaps in access to studentship programmes. How have you approached this? 

LSHTM open day 2017

Embedding Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and tackling the systemic barriers in postgraduate research degree programs was at the heart of LSHTM and SGUL’s submission to MRC and this was highlighted in the grant reviews as one of the strengths of the application. Of the nine studentships available per year, three will be ring-fenced for UK students from ethnic minority backgrounds and up to two additional studentships can be awarded to international students.  

What are some of the EDI strategies you are using? 

Our strategy adopts a proactive approach to EDI with a firm commitment to anti-racism and to decolonising global public health research.  We have mandated training for all potential supervisors on ‘EDI and unconscious bias’ and on ‘Microaggressions and being an active bystander’ and asked supervisory teams to prepare a short written reflection on how they plan to operationalize the DTP EDI strategy in their interactions with prospective students.  We have also worked to widen our recruitment strategy and strengthen our pre-acceptance support.  Most notably, we have taken positive action to recruit and support historically underrepresented groups through a ring-fenced scheme.  Additionally, with the aim of widening participation, we held an Applicant Workshop in December 2021 that included 10 sessions on topics, such as ‘What to expect and ask when you meet a potential supervisor’ and ‘How to write a PhD proposal.’ The well-attended workshop included an open Q&A with MRC board members and students as well as opportunities for individual mentorship meetings.    

What is positive action and how does the ring-fenced scholarships work in terms of positive action? 

As a specific positive action to tackle diversity gaps, the MRC LID programme includes three ring-fenced studentships for UK minority ethnic students.  

LSHTM library

Positive action is a term use for a range of measures, allowed under the Equality Act 2010, that can lawfully be taken to tackle or to overcome historic disadvantage or low participation within education, training, and welfare. A positive action might be to offer additional training or support to people from an underrepresented group (e.g., in response to a low rate of applications from women for academic roles in certain subjects, such as science, engineering, and technology). Positive action must not be confused with positive discrimination (e.g., through preferential treatment), which is unlawful. 

Positive action must be evidence-based and a proportionate means to overcome a recognized disadvantage (e.g., low participation) from a group who share a protected characteristic, such as race, sex, or disability, under the Equality Act (2010). 

At LSHTM and SGUL, recent data indicate diversity-related gaps in our doctoral applicant offer and acceptance rates. Analysis by race/ethnicity shows that white applicants are more likely to be offered a place and to accept than Black applicants. We observed similar disparities in past recruitment to the MRC LID programme. 

We also drew on research across the Higher Education section, such as from the Leading Routes ‘The Broken Pipeline Report,’ which explored the low number of Black postgraduate research students in UK universities.  

What are you doing to support prospective applicants from other groups? What about, for example, individuals with lower socioeconomic status? 

While we recognize that socioeconomic position may influence opportunities to participate in doctoral training, socioeconomic status is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (2010), which is a key prerequisite for positive action.  Additionally, as our institutions have not historically collected data relating to socioeconomic status, we do not have the same evidence base to inform interventions.  

Open day 2020

Nevertheless, we recognise that diversity encompasses and goes beyond protected characteristics as set out in the Equality Act (2010) and should include everything that makes us unique. Within our evolving widening participation work, we aim to develop strategies that consider and capture data related to socioeconomic status, caring responsibilities, or being a care leaver.  As a first step, we have now included these within our application form in order to enable more contextualized assessment.  In addition, we have aimed to promote flexibility in the programmes, such that accommodations including part-time study may be made available as possible. 

What have been some of the hurdles in implementing your EDI strategy so far? 

During the first year of the programme, we have begun implementing our EDI strategy, and we look to share our lessons learned and best practices with the doctoral training communities more widely.  We have particularly welcomed opportunities to collaborate closely and co-develop EDI strategies with the Wellcome Trust-supported Global Health Research in Africa Doctoral Training Programme.  

Compared to previous years, we had fewer UK applications this year, and we look to understand why this was the case to improve our recruitment strategies. In particular, we will examine the way we advertise the DTP across different networks, the website that provides information on the application process, as well as the application materials and their accompanying documents. 

Implementing the mandatory training sessions for all potential supervisory teams was a major undertaking, which was only possible with the amazing support of the EDI and TED teams at LSHTM.  Overall, we were really pleased with the take up and engagement, as more than 140 potential supervisors completed the training.  Nevertheless, we recognise that the EDI, unconscious bias, and microaggression trainings were, in many ways, the start of the conversation. Going forward, we are considering further training requirements linking to the wider work on this area at LSHTM and SGUL including case-based refreshers as well as training on anti-racism and on understanding contextualised assessment of applications. 

We were pleased with the attendance by prospective students at the Applicant Workshop.  While the online delivery created some challenges from a facilitation perspective that we hope to improve on next year, it also made the event more widely accessible, especially to our international applicants.  We have collated questions from this year’s Q&A session that will allow us to continue to improve the pre-application support for next year. 

How do you see the programme developing further? 

To monitor and evaluate the impact of the EDI strategy, we will use an intersectional approach to examine our student recruitment data and also engage with our newly recruited students to listen to their experiences.  We have also met with potential supervisors to learn from their perspective as partners in the development of this programme. On completion of the first round of recruitment to the studentships, this is good timing to learn from the last year and to ensure we are collecting appropriate data and feedback to be able to continue to improve our EDI strategy in future years.  Another priority area for our team related to recruitment will be to expand our programme’s links with Post-’92 Universities.  Finally, we want to see our students thrive in the programme, and we are continuing to refine our approaches for improving student mentorship and support.  Our goal is for each of our students to have both world class scientific training as well as a positive and rewarding academic experience. 

Comments are closed.