Although our systems of education differ in some ways, the United Kingdom and the United States share a common goal: to expand the ethnic and cultural diversity of their students in higher education. To discover the similarities and the differences between the two graduate educational systems – and to benefit from shared best practices – Dr. Holly Prescott, from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, became the first international visiting administrator in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI). The information gathered while at The Ohio State University will help Dr. Prescott in her position as Postgraduate Employer Liaison Officer as well as in her research, which in part centers on career development, career management, and recruitment and selection with regard to graduate students. In turn, Dr. Prescott was able to acquaint ODI with different programs at the University of Birmingham or elsewhere in the United Kingdom that could support graduate students at Ohio State.
Universities have long known the value of pipelines for potential students. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has pre-collegiate programs such as Upward Bound, LASER, and the Young Scholars Program, and Birmingham has a flagship outreach and widening participation scheme called Access to Birmingham (A2B), designed to help students from the West Midlands who have little or no experience with higher education find out what is involved to study at a university. The A2B program, which assesses potential students on a study support module and essay (similar to one of ODI's bridge programs), could demonstrate how such assessments might be done at Ohio State, where Dr. Prescott found an interest in exploring non-cognitive or alternative means of assessing students for entry, especially when tests like the GRE can be considered biased.
Recruiting and retention challenges
Once students have been shown a pathway to higher education, the next hurdle is figuring out how to pay for college. In the UK, as in the US, college affordability has become a defining issue, one that Ohio State will continue to address through President Drake’s Affordability Grants, which will provide further need-based aid to thousands of Buckeye undergraduates.
In the UK, a challenge to recruitment has been a 2012 increase of undergraduate fees, which has made prospective students and parents question whether attending a university is good value for the money. In addition, the British government has recently proposed plans to replace university maintenance grants with loans, leaving students to wonder if they may soon be even more in debt. “In the UK,” Dr. Prescott states, “we do not have the same synergistic kind of Graduate Associateship model for funding graduate students; funding can be extremely competitive, and it can be difficult to find information on who offers bursaries or scholarships, and how to apply for these.”
Lack of funding also poses challenges for graduate students in the UK, where the fear is that increased costs at the undergraduate level may further deter students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds from continuing with their graduate or professional education. To assist some of its graduate students, this September, the University of Birmingham has 224 incoming masters students who will be funded through a scholarship scheme that prioritizes students from underrepresented backgrounds such as state school educated, first-generation participants, or from socio-economic backgrounds with low higher education participation.
“One very positive message was that the agenda of diversity was placed above the interests of the individual institution; if programs and initiatives inspired students to attend graduate or professional school at another institution, then that is still seen as a success.”
Another program that could benefit these masters’ students – as well as MA students at Ohio State – is the Universitas 21 Three Minute Thesis, a program that Dr. Prescott ran at Birmingham in 2013 and 2014. The program is a research communication competition for graduate research students that takes place every October, giving students the opportunity to showcase their research and create new collaborations and networks. Universitas 21, a community of research-intensive universities that collaborates in areas of common interest to their universities, students, faculty, and higher education in general, is a group that ODI is building a relationship with for its future visiting administrators in residence.
Ohio State initiatives that help to retain graduate students – what Dr. Prescott calls “Staying in Academia” programs such as ODI’s Dissertation Boot Camp and its Preparing for the Professoriate Retreat – were also of interest, as was Ohio State’s collaborations with other institutions, especially community colleges: “In the UK, we are starting to create these partnerships, but in terms of recruitment, we could learn a lot more from US programs that are very collaborative and create streamlined processes or that build links between universities and community colleges. Sending community college students to our graduate programs would contribute to positive graduate destinations.”
Different approaches, same objectives
Throughout all of the post-baccalaureate diversity initiatives in the United States and the United Kingdom, the language and discourse that teams use when talking about the work that they do differs. “In the UK, our diversity work is referred to as “widening participation,” with an emphasis that comes from our Office of Fair Access on equal access and raising aspirations. In the US, the official line appears to be that recruiting a diverse student population is in the interests of all students, since it prepares them for effective participation and leadership in a global marketplace and democracy,” a difference that Dr. Prescott found subtle and very interesting.
Despite the differences in the language used or the programs created, both education systems are working hard to expand graduate education opportunities for underrepresented students at their universities.
Dr. Prescott, who received her PhD in English Literature in 2011, was in residence in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion from July 13 – 24, 2015. While at ODI, Dr. Prescott primarily learned about ODI’s post-baccalaureate programs such as the Graduate/Professional Student Recruitment Initiative (GPS) and the Corporate Scholar Symposium. Other programs of interest were ODI’s Post-Baccalaureate Proration Program (Tri-P), Leadership Initiatives for Women of Color, Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program (LSAMP), and Latino and Latin American Space for Enrichment and Research (LASER). She also worked with Ohio State’s Bridge Program in Physics, and diversity offices in the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education, College of Engineering, Fisher College of Business, and the Graduate School.
The Visiting Administrator-In-Residence initiative in Ohio State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion aims to work with the Universitas 21 and others to create relationships that allow for administrative residency in matters of diversity. Each residency will be tailored to best diversity practices, borrowing from each other’s expertise and connecting with ODI’s identified Ohio State partners in diversity offices across campus. An ideal end gain is that ODI establishes broader relationships world-wide.