Why Enabling Students from Underrepresented Groups to Develop Widening Participation Research Matters


 “Putting your money where your mouth is” – this is what Jess, a student researcher, said when discussing her experiences with the Social Mobility Student Research Hub (i.e., ‘the Research Hub’) at the University of Warwick last year. 

The Research Hub was developed by staff from the Widening Participation (WP) team and academics to improve access to, and participation in, research for students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

We wanted to address recognised barriers that these groups can face in pursuing research opportunities and enable them to carry out research in the WP themes of inequalities, inclusion, and social mobility. 

Here we share key benefits from running the Research Hub in the hope that it will inspire you to also engage students in the development of WP research with university staff and other collaborators!  

So, how did the Research Hub (try to) address barriers to research for WP groups?

In four main ways:

  1. Paying a stipend (of £1,660) for students (undergraduate and postgraduate taught) to conduct research projects over a period of approximately six months;
  2. Providing students with regular support from a postgraduate research student mentor and our project team (WP staff and academics),
  3. Offering students opportunities for collaboration and skills development, including training in research methods and ethics, and access to workshops and conferences.
  4. Using an overarching co-creation approach, which emphasises learner empowerment and positions students as the experts with valuable knowledge and contributions to make (e.g., Thiele & Homer, 2023)

What benefits were derived from running the Research Hub?

Over thirty students have conducted research projects through the Research Hub since the programme started in 2021-22.  Their projects covered a breadth of WP themes and used various approaches, including novel methods, such as podcasts and videos.

Drawing on findings from surveys and interviews with student researchers, as well as our own experiences with running the Research Hub, we discuss three main sets of benefits from offering these types of research opportunity.

Benefit one: it widens access to research for these groups

This seems obvious, but needs mentioning.

Students we interviewed and surveyed consistently reported developing new skills, knowledge and confidence to explore future research possibilities- which several have since gone on to pursue.  They also told us how the funding, support and research training offered by the programme enabled them to take part in a research opportunity that they otherwise would not have considered viable- for financial reasons, or other reasons such as their levels of confidence or self-belief in their ability to do research (sometimes for the first time).

Benefit two: it can expand the ‘WP evidence-base’  raising awareness of issues and challenges affecting underrepresented groups that need greater consideration

Students’ research projects were valuable in bringing forward new questions and perspectives on issues that may not have been considered previously in the WP literature;  as they were often based on their lived experiences. As explained by John and Mary respectively:  “because these were issues that had affected me personally, I knew where to look”; “I wanted to give a glimpse into the world of a disabled person”.

Our webpage provides examples of projects students have developed, which have been valuable to us in highlighting a range of WP challenges/issues that need consideration.

These projects include podcasts such as the ‘Warwick on Wheels podcast”,  a video about the experiences of WP students with  ‘Navigating Impostor Sydrome at Russell Group Universities” and more traditional reports that explore questions such as:

  • How does university accommodation affect the student experience?
  • How are reduced Contextual Offers perceived by students?

Benefit three: enabling students to conduct research in themes related to WP instills positive change that strengthens and legimises the student voice.

As explained by Jess: “ I wanted to see if something that affected me also affected others, and that way tell the University, its not just me”.

The Research Hub offered a platform, that could help to address issues related to WP and improve the student expereince by supporting students to conduct research which allowed  their voices and experiences to be heard.

Paying students was important to enable them to participate in research, remunerating  them fairly for their time/effort, but also for telling them that we care about what they have to say and believe it is important.

Running programmes like the Research Hub, is expensive, it takes staff time and effort to do right but it is well worth it, putting our money where our mouth is, and like Kyle said : “ giving students from WP groups a voice and an opportunity, a platform, as research is so exclusionary”.

Blog By: By Dr Tamara Thiele (Widening Participation Evaluation and Evidence Manager) and Kate McCarthy (Widening Participation Evaluation and Evidence Officer) from the University of Warwick

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