Can undergraduate research experiences help widen participation to postgraduate study?


By Anthony Hudson

Continuum is currently undertaking a small-scale study: Exploring and evaluating undergraduate research-based experiences. The research aims firstly, to explore academics’ perceptions of the value of research-based experiences for undergraduates. Secondly, to identify the barriers and enablers to establishing and supporting such experiences. Thirdly, to evaluate a particular research-based experience – the University of East London’s undergraduate research internship scheme – from the perspective of both undergraduate interns and academic supervisors.

Exploring how academics define undergraduate research may provide an understanding of the forms of engagement – the types of undergraduate research experience – that they view as being able to provide students with the necessary research skills (Brew and Mantai, 2017). The forms that undergraduate research experiences take range from apprentice-type internships, to course based experiences in the formal curriculum. Whilst the skills that undergraduates can gain from such experiences will vary, there is evidence that they facilitate progression to postgraduate study (Moore, Avant, and Austin 2008).  The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (2009) reported that postgraduate qualifications were increasingly becoming the gateway for careers in a growing number of professions. Research skills as Hudson (2013:151) noted: ‘…are not the preserve of those who wish to follow an academic career; they are central to the knowledge economy and professions in which graduates seek employment.’ In a subsequent blog, we will be exploring how such schemes and programmes benefit institutions and individuals – supervisors and undergraduates.

To date, there has been limited research on the lived experience of undergraduates undertaking research internships and course based research experiences. Developing an understanding of their preconceptions and experience may enable institutions to design internships and programmes that meet the needs of their students. Similarly being aware of students’ preconceptions may enable the institution in general and supervisors in particular, to manage their expectations. Whilst internship programmes and undergraduate research experiences are well established in many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the United States – and to a lesser extent in Community Colleges – students from underrepresented groups are often excluded. Research by Bangera and Brownnell (2014) focussing on STEM undergraduates in the United States notes that underrepresented students are excluded for a number of reasons ranging from: awareness of such opportunities to financial and personal barriers. This is a cause for concern especially when independent research experiences are seen as a pre-requisite for STEM undergraduates who wish to progress to Graduate School.

Returning to the UK, it seems salient to look at the impact of policy responses to widen participation to postgraduate study and in particular the introduction of postgraduate student loans. Non-means tested loans of up to £10,000 (to cover tuition and living costs) for postgraduate students were introduced in the academic year 2016/17 and loans of up to £25,000 for doctoral students from the current academic year, 2018/19. Drawing on data from the HESA Student record and the Intentions After Graduation Survey, the Office for Students notes: ‘that the proportion of students who state their intention to continue their studies and end up going into postgraduate education has increased’ (OfS, 2018). Since the loans were introduced in 2016/17 there has been an increase of 22,000 students to eligible master’s courses, an increase of 31 per cent from 2015/16. Whilst this has not had impact in terms of gender; the proportion of black students increased from 8 per cent in 2015/16 to 11 per cent in 2016/17; and the proportion of students from the lowest participation area (POLAR 4 quintile 1) increased from 9 per cent to 10 per cent of the young postgraduate entrant population. Will these modest increases continue? Or will we see, as Wakeling & Laurison (2017) argue, drawing on Raferty & Hout’s (1993) thesis of Maximally Maintained Inequality  (MMI) that as initial access to HE increases, inequality of access moves to the next level, in this case – postgraduate study. Based on data from the Labour Force Survey, Wakeling & Laurison (2017:552) conclude: ‘that social class inequalities not only persist at postgraduate level, but have widened over time.’  It would seem as Wakeling et al (2017) note that institutions with a demonstrable commitment to widening participation will be key in widening postgraduate participation

Turning back to the question: Can undergraduate research experiences help widen participation to postgraduate study? Certainly, if structural barriers, such as finance, are reduced or removed, then research experiences are more likely to have an impact. In addition to skills development they may help foster or clarify students’ interests and encourage them to consider postgraduate study. From our small-scale study we hope to explore these structural issues; the barriers and enablers to implementation and delivery of research experiences; as well as the barriers and enablers to participation in such schemes, particularly for learners from underrepresented groups. You’ll have to keep following our blog posts during the course of the study to find out whether structures and processes reproduce inequality or help to widen participation.


Bangera, G. & Brownell, S. E.  (2014). “Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences Can Make Scientific Research More Inclusive.” CBE-Life Sciences Education. 13(4): 602–606.

Brew, A. & Mantai, L. (2017). “Academics’ perceptions of the challenges and barriers to implementing research-based experiences for undergraduates.” Teaching in Higher Education. 22(5): 551-568.

Hudson, A. (2013). “The undiscovered country: widening participation to postgraduate study”, in Hill, M., Hudson, A., Jones, P., Renton, R., Saunders, D.  & Storan, J. (eds.) Widening Access to Higher Education in Divided Communities. FACE: London.

Moore, L. S., Avant, F. & Austin, S.F. ( 2008). “Strengthening Undergraduate Social Work Research: Models and Strategies.” Social Work Research. 32(4): 231–35.

Office for Students (OfS). (2018). The effect of postgraduate loans. Available at:  Date accessed: 18 May 2018.

Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (2009) Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. Cabinet Office: London.

Raftery, A.E. & Hout, M. 1993 “Maximally Maintained Inequality: Expansion, Reform and Opportunity in Irish Higher Education, 1921–1975.” Sociology of Education. 66 (1): 41–62.

Wakeling, P., Hampden-Thompson, G. &  Hancock, S. (2017). “Is undergraduate debt an impediment to postgraduate enrolment in England?” British Educational Research Journal. doi:10.1002/berj.3304. Accessed: 18 October 2017.

Wakeling, P. & Laurison, D. (2017). “Are postgraduate qualifications the ‘new frontier of social mobility’?” British Journal of Sociology. 68(3):532-555.


About Tony Hudson

Currently undertaking doctoral research at the University of East London focusing on the learning career and academic identity of Access HE teachers.
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