Widening access to postgraduate courses

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have been working with the local community in the London borough of Newham for many years. In this blog, Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach Officer at Birkbeck discusses what widening access to postgraduate courses looks like in the Birkbeck context.

A post-it with a lightbulb

There is a lot of buzz around ‘Widening Participation (WP)’ or ‘access’ to Higher Education. In fact, the Government, through the Office for Students, requires universities to prove that they are actively engaged in activities that will support students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds into undergraduate study. At most universities Widening Participation activities focus on supporting secondary school pupils into university. Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department challenges this model, supporting BTEC and Further Education College students alongside prospective mature students from a variety of backgrounds including Trade Union members and people who are Forced Migrants.

At Birkbeck, we also want to challenge approaches to access that only focus on undergraduate students. We have a fantastically diverse undergraduate cohort, but this diversity is not reflected to the same extent in our postgraduate student body. As our postgraduate student numbers grow and a Master’s degree becomes increasingly important for gaining a professional job we have pioneered new approaches which reach out to potential postgraduate students.

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have worked in the east London borough of Newham for many years and in 2018, the department received funding from the London Legacy Development Corporation enabling them to expand their work in Newham and began trialling advice and guidance for potential postgraduate applicants. While there has been substantial economic development in the borough since the 2012 Olympics, many local graduates still find themselves underemployed or unemployed.  For graduates looking to move on from zero-hours contracts, take the next step after poor attainment in their first degree or stepping back into a career after taking time to care for family, postgraduate study can be just as life-changing as undergraduate.

Working with potential postgraduate students through the lens of access enabled us to explore the many unanswered questions around ‘what actually is non-traditional’ and what is defined as ‘widening access’ at postgraduate level. Across a sector dominated by 18-year olds, the traditional widening access criteria and interventions for undergraduate can’t simply be transferred wholesale to postgraduate applicants. This is especially relevant for Birkbeck, where our undergraduate access work already looks very different from the rest of the HE sector, leading to the question, if our access work at undergraduate aims to reach those left behind by traditional widening access work, what does postgraduate widening access look like in the Birkbeck context?

Our postgraduate Information, Advice and Guidance pilot enabled us to begin exploring this question alongside a wider strategic project going on across the College to improve access to Masters programmes for a diverse range of students.

To find out more about our learnings from the east London widening access at postgraduate programme, watch our webinar. We also have a range of open-access videos for potential postgraduate students that can be used in student communications.

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