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Barriers to Black PhD Students - A reflection on progress and the work that still needs to be done.

Updated: May 30

On the 14th  of June 2024, Ayo Barley, MD Bakare Barley Ltd and Chair of the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Postgraduate Education (YCEDE) External Advisory Board will be chairing a panel session at the YCEDE Workshop 2024: The Journey to Sustainable Organisational Change for Equity in Postgraduate Research.

It will be an in person interactive event during which YCEDE will celebrate and share the research and activities aimed at widening access to postgraduate research for ethnically minoritised candidates that YCEDE has carried out to date. It will feature sessions on how Universities can work together to embed sustainable and meaningful change within departments, doctoral training programmes and partner organisations.

The panel, made up of expert partners, and External Advisory Board members will be exploring “Five years on from the Broken Pipeline Report: What has changed?” in an important debate about the importance of reflection, and redoubling our efforts in times of increased challenge and scrutiny on equity and diversity initiatives globally.

About the Broken Pipeline Report

In 2019, Leading Routes: “The Broken Pipeline – Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Council Funding” report highlighted significant barriers faced by Black PhD students in accessing research council funding in the UK. These barriers included potential for bias and microaggressions in the current supervisor model, a preference for graduates from research intensive institutions, fixed notions of “academic excellence” and limited access to networks and resources.

Five years later, it’s important to reflect on the progress made and identify areas where challenges still persist.

Here’s an overview of some of the developments and ongoing challenges from across the sector:

Improved Access to Funding

Targeted Funding Initiatives

Research councils have introduced targeted funding schemes specifically aimed at underrepresented groups, including Black PhD students. These initiatives provide dedicated scholarships, grants, and bursaries to support their academic pursuits. Recent examples of funding available from UK Universities include the 125th Anniversary Scholarships for Black British Researchers by the University of Birmingham, providing funding for talented Black postgraduate research students. In addition the University of Bristol launched PhD Scholarships for Applicants of Black Heritage as part of their commitment to the Black community.

Transparency in Funding Processes

Research founds that although Black students constitute nearly 6 per cent of undergraduate admissions, just 1.2 per cent of the nearly 20,000 funded PhD studentship awarded by the UK research councils between 2016 and 2018 went to Black or Black mixed students (UKRI, 2019). Efforts to make the application processes more transparent have been implemented. This includes clearer guidelines, criteria, and feedback mechanisms to ensure fairer evaluations from a race equity perspective.


Continued Disparities: Despite these recent efforts, disparities in funding success rates for Black PhD students remain. Data indicates that while there is progress, the funding gap has not been fully closed, For example, shockingly UK physics has no Black professors, according to 2020–21 data disclosed to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Black people make up 4% of the country’s working-age population, and 8% of its science undergraduates, yet just 0.6% of its science professors.

Awareness and Accessibility: Many Black students may still be unaware of these targeted initiatives or find the application processes difficult to access. New, innovative and inclusive approaches to University outreach programmes are needed to ensure these opportunities reach all potential candidates, and that the applications system is supportive, fair and free from bias.


Enhanced Mentorship and Support Networks

Mentoring Programs: There has been a significant increase in mentorship programs tailored for Black and racially minoritised PhD students. These programs connect students with experienced researchers who can provide guidance, support, and career advice. For example, Imperial have launched the Activate Mentoring Programme which supports Minority Ethnic PhD students as well as recipients of their President’s Scholarships for students of Black heritage

Peer Networks:

Establishing peer support networks and affinity groups within universities has helped create communities where Black students can share experiences, resources, and support.


Scalability: While mentoring and support networks are growing, their reach and effectiveness can vary widely across institutions. Ensuring these programs are well-resourced, well promoted, and accessible to all students is crucial.

Quality of Mentoring and mentor/mentee training: The quality and impact of mentoring can be inconsistent. Effective, trauma informed and culturally humble mentor training and matching processes are essential to ensure meaningful support for mentees.


Addressing Systemic Bias and Institutional Culture

Bias Training and Awareness: Many institutions have implemented training for staff involved in the funding process and PhD supervisors. This training aims to reduce biases that can disadvantage Black applicants. A recent study by Kirsten Riches-Suman1 and Russell Delderfield "Developing supervisors with ability, awareness and confidence to drive inclusive cultures for postgraduate researchers" highlights how supervisors can be developed as positive agents for academic change.

Diversity and Inclusion Strategies: Universities and research councils have developed comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategies that include specific actions to support Black PhD students.


Implementation Gaps: Despite these strategies, there can be significant gaps between policy, practice and adequate resources for sustainable implementation. Ensuring that diversity and inclusion initiatives are effectively implemented and monitored remains a challenge for many organisations across the UK Higher Education sector. .

Pace of Change: Institutional culture can be slow to change overall. Resistance from within and outside of the academic community slows the progress of diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly in the context of financial challenges across HEIs.

Increased Visibility and Advocacy

Advocacy and Activism: Advocacy groups and activists have kept the issue of underrepresentation of Black PhD students in the spotlight, pushing for systemic changes and accountability.

Public Commitments: Research councils and universities have made public commitments to improving diversity, often setting specific targets and timelines.


Measuring Impact: Assessing the true impact of these public commitments can be challenging. There is a need for robust metrics and regular reporting to track progress.

Building on Current Momentum: Maintaining momentum and focus on these issues requires continuous effort and commitment from all stakeholders involved to visibly benchmark against one another to catalyse progress.

Research and Data Collection

Enhanced Data Collection: There has been an improvement in the collection and publication of data related to the funding and progress of Black PhD students. This transparency helps in identifying areas needing improvement.

Research on Barriers: Ongoing research continues to explore the barriers faced by Black PhD students, providing valuable insights and recommendations for further action.


Data Gaps: While data collection has improved, there are still gaps in understanding the full extent of the barriers and how they intersect with other factors such as socio-economic status, gender, and disability.

Utilizing Data: Ensuring that the data collected is effectively used to inform policy and practice is critical. Data should drive continuous improvement and accountability for Black PhD students.


Key reflections

Five years on from "The Broken Pipeline" report, there have been notable strides in addressing the barriers faced by Black PhD students in accessing research council funding.

Targeted funding initiatives, improved mentorship, efforts to combat systemic bias, and increased advocacy have all contributed to progress. However, we note that significant challenges remain, particularly in closing the funding gap, ensuring the effectiveness of mentoring programs, and fully implementing diversity and inclusion strategies and measuring impact.

Continued and evolving efforts based on the experiences of Black PhD students are needed to sustain and build on improved outcomes, experiences and representation. By fostering a genuinely inclusive academic environment and addressing systemic inequities, we can hope to see more equitable access to opportunities for Black PhD students in the future, and avoid the continued loss of talent and innovation across the academic community.

Find out more about more

OfS, Research England and YCEDE partners have committed to invest more than £4 million over 4 years to improve access and participation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in postgraduate research study across Yorkshire.

The project is divided into four workstreams (WS) led by different people and involving all partners - visit the YCEDE website.

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