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University of Reading Feb 2023: Staff Roundtable Resources

Generation Delta Staff Roundtable Report 

2nd phase of the PGR cycle: Retention and Progression (RaP) 


Roundtable title: ‘Preparing for the academic upgrade process' 

Hosting institution: University of Reading 

Date: Friday 17 February 2023 

Time: 1.00 pm to 4.00 pm 

Venue: online 


1. Introduction 

 This roundtable was offered to staff from the six Generation Delta institutions (Universities of Leeds, Goldsmiths, Reading, Sheffield, Plymouth and Sunderland) involved in discussions relating to the upgrade process of PGR students. Staff in attendance participated in a cross-institutional conversation about how the PGR upgrade process can be made more equitable for BAME women. This roundtable was relevant to colleagues in doctoral academies/graduate schools, PGR directors at departmental and school level and PGR supervisors (See Annex 1 for invitation flyer).  

 The aims of the session were to: 

 a) Brainstorm the need for alternative sources of support for PGR students.

b) Consider the wellbeing facilities offered to PGR students

c) Develop a set of actions that will feed into institutional processes as well as the design of further training and roundtable 

The following was the roundtable agenda: 

1.00 – 1.15 Introduction to Generation Delta  

1.15 – 1.20 Admissions roundtable (Goldsmiths) feedback  

1.20 - 2.30 Academic Support (breakout rooms):Where can students go if their relationship with their supervisor is not good? Should PGR students have academic tutors? (30-minute group discussion; 5 mins feedback from the Reading student roundtable on the Upgrade Process, 35 minutes feedback) 

2.30 - 2.45 Break 

2.45 – 3.45Well-being Support for PGR Students (breakout rooms): How often do you think students drop out/fail because of work-life balance or well-being issues? What support are universities providing for the wellbeing of students? Is this support working? What is not working? What are the best practices? What can we do to best support the wellbeing of students? (30 minutes group discussion; 30 minutes feedback) 

3.45 – 4 Wrap-Up  

For the introduction to the Generation Delta programme by Professor Iyiola Solanke please go to Introduction to GenDelta project and team.mp4 

2. Registration and attendees 

A total of 29 staff registered for the roundtable and 15 joined online (See Annex 2 for pro-forma registration form). 

 3. Staff feedback from Session 1 breakout rooms: Academic Support  

Before the feedback discussion started, Professor Uma Kambhampati shared the main points raised by the students during the in-person upgrade workshop on 15 February 2023.  

Staff in attendance were split into three breakout rooms to discuss, for 30 minutes, the following questions: 

 Academic Support: Where can students go if their relationship with their supervisor is not good? Should PGR students have academic tutors?  

 The main points raised by the staff in the breakout rooms were: 

 Group 1 

  • ‘Silence’ (students’ decreased feeling of having a voice) has exacerbated during and after the pandemic due to the lack of socialising and if not flagged up on time it could become a problem 
  • There is an annual supervision system in place at Reading which is part of the supervision process but it might be more beneficial if it is separated to evaluate the supervisory arrangements themselves. 
  • Lack of on-campus community also decreases the students’ feeling of having a voice. There’s a need to set up systems for students to have a voice such as weekly lunchtimes, seminars, etc. Already in place in some universities.  
  • At Goldsmiths PGR reps are collecting students’ perspectives which facilitates immediate action if needed. It can evidence red flags which may be otherwise undetected. 
  • The Graduate School to serve as a point of contact outside of the departments 
  • It’d be good to have flexibility for organising seminars and training programs for students who might work during the day 
  • Having personal tutors would be highly beneficial to discuss difficulties in the supervisory process 
  • Navigating the system for students is difficult so having a point of contact aside from the supervisor is vital 
  • The weight of the guidance can be skewed focusing on the supervisors rather than the students 
  • Academic tutors should be no brainer, especially after COVID. But that raises the question about workload allocation. At some universities, policies for supporting undergraduate students are already in place so this can be extended to PGR students. No need to introduce anything new. 

Group 2 

  • Keeping coordinators and tutors separate and with different responsibilities. 
  • Students are afraid to approach other university staff to talk about issues they might have with their supervisors. Supervisors might have close connections with such staff. International students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds might have even more reservations to approach available support services. 
  • Tokenism or tick-box involvement of staff should be avoided. They might be doing it for the sake of doing it but they might not be the best person to engage with BAME female students. 
  • Academic tutors need to be ready to support BAME female students, good intentions are not enough. They might not understand the students’ cultural contexts, nor have the skills or have too much workload 

Group 3 

  • A diverse student body vs. a not so diverse staff body (White and middle-class) brings difficulties. Staff might not be able to understand where the students are coming form when experiences difficulties with their studies. So there need to increasing training but also diversity within staff. 
  • BAME students might want to prefer to look for BAME supervisors. However, due to loyalties created, even if a problem arises in the relationship students might not seek to address them. 
  • Student might approach peers for support but since peers do not have decision making power, whatever problem the student is dealing with is likely to remain unresolved. 
  • Since there are few BAME supervisors, they might find themselves overburden with supervision request from BAME students. 

Other discussion points:  

  • How common it is to have more than two academic supervisors?  

At Plymouth’s Business School is quite common because it makes part of the training of new staff. It’s also beneficial if one of the supervisors leave so the other two can fill in the gap. At Reading, experiences with three supervisors have ended being a waste of resources as three supervisors might be each pulling the research in different directions.  

  • Just because supervisors are BAME is not safe to assume that they have the best interest at heart. Aspects like socio-economic background and different cultural contexts might still be in place as with White middle-class supervisors. Intersectionality can bring us down to all of us being by ourselves. 
  • Goldsmiths has a tutor in place for PGR students at the Arts departments who helps with pastoral issues and is separate from the Academic department. 

 4. Staff feedback from Session 2 breakout rooms: Well-being Support for PGR Students  

During this session, the staff were split into three breakout rooms to discuss, for 30 minutes, the following questions: 

How often do you think students drop out/fail because of work-life balance or well-being issues? What support are universities providing for the wellbeing of students? Is this support working? What is not working? What are the best practices? What can we do to best support the wellbeing of students? 

Group 1 

  • Covid-related challenges affected and are still affecting the PhD process for many students such as dropping out. 
  • Students feel they cannot share their struggles in terms of wellbeing. They rely on families and partners instead. 
  • The shift to hybrid has affected the students’ experiences not only in academic but also wellbeing terms 
  • Best practices: PGR spaces for socialization, booking times with the faculty director for a safe space, cultural celebration spaces. However, the online boking system for the safe space discussions are not having the demand expected so perhaps these need to me somehow promoted in-person for students to meet the faculty and perhaps in this way build trust. 
  • Need for wellbeing support to come from counsellors or other trained professionals, not necessarily the supervisors.   
  • Need for career support 

Group 2 

  • Wellbeing services such as mental health have a Eurocentric approach, neglecting how different cultural background might approach and understand wellbeing and mental health. Also, wellbeing services need to be monitored as it is rarely known whether they have been effective in addressing the issues students bring up. Also, there’s no knowledge why some students do not reach put to these services. 
  • Need for support systems to extend beyond a tutor, a tiered service. 
  • Getting more detail about why some students drop out of their studies 
  • Building social support networks. Students tend to rely on informal spaces. 

Group 3 

  • There’s a difference between International and Home students in terms of community building.  While International students tend to come with a community of support, Home students seem to struggle in terms of work-life balance and hence more prone to withdrawal from their studies.  
  • When withdrawals happen there’s no tracking/monitoring in place to find out how much wellbeing struggles impact these decisions. Monitoring academic progress is more common that wellbeing assessment.  
  • After Covid, there were a lot of services implemented online and in-person but these have been gradually stopped. 
  • Wellbeing support seems to differ not only across universities but across departments where, in some cases, academic emphasis definitely to take the lead. For example, Plymouth’s Business School has mental health champions where students are trained to support other students. 
  • Disciplinary differences between natural sciences and social sciences influence approaches to wellbeing. PGR students from social sciences seem to demand for mental health and wellbeing services. 
  • In some universities, wellbeing services are focused on undergraduate students. 
  • Students form their informal support networks, but there’s not awareness whether these are set up because the universities support structures are not enough or not effective. 
  • Why not have a PhD society for PGR students in every university? The university can provide some financial support. The idea is for the GenDelta networks at each of the partner universities to serve as a great starting point. 
  • Informal coffee mornings led by students or staff to discuss and signpost wellbeing issues.  

 5. Summary and conclusions from breakout rooms discussions 

Where can students go if their relationship with their supervisor is not good? Should PGR students have academic tutors?  

  • Diversity in student body but not amongst staff 
  • Wide variety amongst universities in arrangements for students; 
  • Common to have two supervisors but there are places with only 1 supervisor and some have 3!! 
  • PGR Director is not there in all universities. 
  • PGR students often worried about going against their supervisor and so do ont access support that exists 
  • Often staff do not have skills to provide the necessary support 
  • Peer support is offered (in Plymouth) and can be very helpful but some concerns that students may not have the power to change things. 
  • Academic tutors were seen as being useful for PGR students.  These tutors, it was agreed in our group, should be independent of the supervision team or the PGR Director and/ or Coordinator.  The challenge that arose from this was really around workload –staff already stretched…..So universities need to invest in this as they do for undergrad personal tutors and there was some hesitation as to whether they would….but certainly this is something that Gen Delta could strongly support/lobby for albeit this would necessarily be for all students and not just the Gen Delta demographic….Other points that might be added to summary for Session 2:  
  • There does not appear to be any follow up for students who withdraw so the reasons for their withdrawal are often unknown.  Only one person mentioned that the little she knew about student withdrawals was that they withdrew not because of mental health issues but due to work, caring responsibilities and long Covid.  Perhaps an action here could be the need to have ‘exit interviews’ with students who withdraw? 
  • Lack of information on whether interventions work.  For example, if students are referred to mental health services etc how do we know if the intervention has worked?  No follow up again here.  Disconnect between Central Support Services and PGR team.  Action Point could be to implement some kind of reporting/feedback mechanism? 
  • Support services too generic and fail to consider different backgrounds of students. Action: more tailored services?  Again, would this have a financial implication? 
  • Difference between Home and International Students – the latter do not want to raise any issues or concerns they have due to fear (e.g. visa, funding implications etc) – international students seen to ‘live with the problem’.   

Conclusions: Personal tutoring could be a way out. Should this be suggested? It leaves questions open, of course. Should the tutor be separate from the PGR Director, for instance? 

  • How often do you think students drop out/fail because of work-life balance or well-being issues? What support are universities providing for the wellbeing of students? Is this support working? What is not working? What are the best practices? What can we do to best support the wellbeing of students?  
  • Community for PGR students spoken about. There seems to be a difference between the science departments (where community is provided by labs) and the humanities and social sciences. 
  • PGR students face academic challenges as well as caring challenges from families. 
  • PGR students often see the support available as being for UG students; possibly because support services are geared towards UGs? 
  • Need to normalise support seeking 

 6. Post-roundtable evaluation  

The post-roundtable evaluation form had 19 questions divided in three sections (See Annex 3 for the complete answers to the post-roundtable evaluation form): 

Section 1: Ten (10) questions, nine (9) on a Likert scale and one (1) open questions on the delivery of the roundtable, the achievement of the roundtable aims and the increased understanding of the issues discussed 

Section 2: Four (4) questions on a Likert scale on the different sessions of the roundtable: Introduction, the breakout rooms discussions and the open discussion. 

Section 3: Five (5) open answer questions for further comments. 

Section 1 

On average, the questions on the delivery and organisation of the roundtable were positive with a 60% average rating it with a “Strongly Agree”. However, the percentage of “Strongly Agree” answers decreased (25%) and the “Agree” increased (60%) for the questions related to the ability to implement changes in the corresponding institutions: 

 The question that fared the lowest Strongly Agree rating (10%) was on meeting the third objective of the roundtable: ‘Develop a set of actions that will feed into institutional processes as well as the design of further training and roundtables’: 

Section 2 

This section evidenced how staff had engaged more on Academic Support than the Wellbeing support discussions. 

Section 3 

Open comments from the staff highlighted the usefulness of having this type of discussions across institutions, to share knowledge on obstacles as well as best practices: 

“The opportunity to share thinking with colleagues and through this to change/open up my own thinking.” 

“Becoming aware of the variety of models of PG support systems across different  

institutions and hearing about alternative practices. Thinking through relevant support for students that is a defined by them and b sets up support beyond supervisors. Hearing from BAME* pg students about their experiences (Reading uni meeting) and the student network being set up to link students at Sunderland/Northumbria to others,” 

In terms on what can be improved, staff strongly suggested to allow more time or space to discuss actions/changes that can be implemented:  

“Questions focused on adding to support rather than addressing underlying issues.” 

“Perhaps a bit more focus needed on next steps and key action points”  

“Deeper dive case study of say the Safe-Space group and how this is  

accessed/offered/funded etc.” 

 Annex 1: Invitation flyer 

 Annex 2: Registration Form 

 Annex 3: Post-roundtable evaluation Form