Ensuring inclusivity

In 2014 there were 10,173 graduate students at Oxford representing 46% of the total student body and almost 2% of the UK's graduate students; of these just over half (55%) are domiciled outside the UK.

Around 55% of the postgraduate body are studying for a higher degree by research with 59% of those studying in the medical, mathematical, physical and life sciences and 38% in the humanities and social sciences. (The rest are studying for degrees offered by the Department for Continuing Education or are visiting, recognised or other students.) 58% of postgraduate research students are male and 42% female though this varies between disciplines with the greatest difference being found in the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences division (71% male, 29% female). See Facts and Figures on Student Numbers.

Oxford, like all Higher education institutions, is subject to the Equality Act 2010, which provides protection against discrimination on the basis of a number of characteristics including age, race, sexual orientation, religion or belief, pregnancy and maternity and gender reassignment.

The University's Integrated Equality Policy states:

The University of Oxford aims to provide an inclusive environment which promotes equality, values diversity and maintains a working, learning and social environment in which the rights and dignity of all its staff and students are respected to assist them in reaching their full potential. The University will work to remove any barriers which might deter people of the highest potential and ability from applying to Oxford, either as staff or students.

What does inclusivity mean in the Oxford context? There are separate policies or sources of information on each of the following dimensions of diversity:

Still, other aspects of diversity, whether deriving from the list above or not, also impact on student experience and should be taken into account by supervisors. E.g. part-time work (see below). As well, with over half of Oxford's postgraduate students in 2014 being "international", attention needs to be given to the varied issues these individuals may experience.

Although information on different aspects of diversity is limited, we do have some Oxford data on how satisfied male and female postgraduate research students and postgraduate research students who disclose a disability are with aspects of their learning. The following responses are from the Student Barometer Survey in 2014. The results suggest that female students are in some instances less satisfied than males, and that those who declare learning difficulties and other disabilities feel much less satisfied than all respondents.

Oxford PGR students' satisfaction with aspects of learning (showing % of satisfied or very satisfied students in various categories)
Satisfied or very satisfied with... All respondents by gender Respondents declaring
a disability
  Female Male Specific
learning difficulty
Other disability
...subject expertise of supervisors 95 96 96 93
...level of research activity 94 94 88 89
...teaching ability of supervisors 91 93 86 81
...guidance from my supervisor on topic
selection and refinement
84 87 83 77
...helpful feedback on my progress from my supervisors 87 89 82 77
...confidence about managing a research project  85 89 86 74
...prompt feedback on my work  86 88 91 79
...understanding the required standard for
my thesis 
82 86 78 75
...learning that will get me a good job  73  80  77 62
...advice and guidance on long-term job
opportunities from academic staff
64 73 70 51
...opportunities to teach  61 70 62 56
experience so far
88 89 84 79
...OVERALL SATISFACTION with all aspects
of university experience
91 91 86 83


The University has an Athena SWAN Bronze award; this scheme is focused on sciences and an award demonstrates commitment to gender equality and the actions it takes to achieve this. The University has been active in the Athena Swan initiative to address gender inequalities and more recently racial inequalities, and has also expanded its own initiatives to include all disciplines.

Further, the university has undertaken to make staff aware of unconscious bias: how we all habitually react differently to people we perceive to be like us and those we perceive to be different from us, and the impact that this has on our decisions at work. Unconscious bias is now thought to be an important factor in the difficulties that women and other minorities continue to experience in recruitment to and advancement in employment. For those interested in learning more about unconscious bias, a short online course is available for all staff (single sign on): Unconscious Bias. You may also wish to see a recent Equality Challenge Unit report on Equality in Higher Education: Students.

The culture of doctoral education is characterised by independent learning with the research student expected to become an accomplished self-directed individual. Those who supervise doctoral students usually have a feeling for the level of support which is appropriate; to go beyond this level can raise concerns about the erosion of academic standards and the competence of the student. However, a minimalist style of supervision can be a barrier to those students who come with needs, expectations, abilities and values that are outside the personal experience or expectations of supervisors.

A question to ask yourself as a supervisor: How, if at all, does your approach to supervision vary between domestic and overseas students, students of the same or different gender to you, those from a different race from you, etc.?

In trying to treat all students equitably, regardless of their backgrounds, supervisors may feel challenged in thinking about how they can ensure fairness in their dealings and maintain an appropriate ethos of dignity and respect for all. Ensuring fairness may involve making reasonable adjustments so as to accommodate the varied expectations, abilities, needs and values of students.

Mindfulness and reflective thinking are approaches which many value for helping them to ensure they are considerate and fair in their dealings with others.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides guidance specifically aimed at higher education institutions, and can also provide advice and support on specific cases.

The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) works to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education institutions. Their Equality Legislation webpage explains how legislation is applied to protected characteristics, some of which are listed below.


Higher education plays a vital role in preparing students for the employment market and active citizenship both nationally and internationally. By embedding race equality in teaching and learning, institutions can ensure that they acknowledge the experiences and values of all students, including minority ethnic and international students. This has implications as regards the supervisory relationship since, for instance, students may feel a sense of isolation due to their race. Here is one student contrasting her experience at the University with her experience in the field:

Just in terms of racial dynamics, I'm often one of the few, as a black person in Oxford. When I was doing fieldwork, all of a sudden, in some ways, it was a relieving experience - kind of nice to be taking the bus with people who look like me, where I can make certain jokes and actually people know what I'm talking about! So, that was kind of nice. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

For further information:


The Equality Challenge Unit has advice on matters relating to age. It can no longer be assumed that doctoral students come directly from their undergraduate degrees to study. They often have worked for some time and have accumulated personal relationships and responsibilities that may influence their ability to engage in doctoral work. As this student notes, being older can be challenging:

Why I didn't do a D.Phil. until I was 45 years old was simply money ..it took me 20 years to save up enough resources to be able to do this now. There is a really good reason why people do a DPhil when they're 25 years old! You've got a lot more energy, you have the ability to stay up late at night, and you have fewer family ..obligations. It is really hard to do a DPhil when you're 45 years old. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Religion and belief

There is a responsibility to provide general facilities and services without unlawful discrimination on the basis of religion and belief whilst ensuring that those facilities and services are appropriate for all staff and students. The ECU's briefing on religious observance in higher education discusses the provision of facilities and services from a religion and belief perspective.

Ideas and information on working and living together from St Ethelburga's (centre for reconciliation and peace) - Multifaith resources.

Nevertheless, this form of diversity is largely invisible, yet may powerfully influence student motivation. This student who was working with an assigned supervisor reported:

He suggested a different research question from what I was really interested in. And he wants me to write within his theory, of course. But I struggle with this since it conflicts with my Christian beliefs, but I feel pressured to use it. And because I don't have any particular interest in it, I don't feel like I'm a part of the community. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)


While there are many institutional resources to support young women as well as men (see below), supervision involves personal interactions which may be influenced by taken-for-granted affinities both on the part of the student and the supervisor. Here a student talks about the value she places on a range of characteristics that she values in her supervisor - while acknowledging that gender may have an influence on the relationship.

I'd like to think, with my main supervisor, whether she was a man or a woman, I'd get on with her. I think it's more to do with them as a person. But, I suppose, because my supervisor's got children like me, maybe she is more sympathetic to me, I don't know. But I also admire her in other ways because she's quite a ruthless, quite a strong person. And I take on board any of her criticism since she's very constructive, and I think if you can get anything past her, then you're alright. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Supervisors may wish to remind female students that the Oxford Learning Institute Springboard programme is a personal development programme for female University staff in which a limited number of doctoral students may participate each year. The MPLS Springboard programme is specifically for researchers and open to female doctoral students from all divisions. MPLS also offers the Navigator programme, a similar programme for men.

Many disciplinary organizations have sections of their websites directed to diversity, including gender, e.g. The Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics. The Learning Institute's Resources on Gender offer information about gender issues for learning and teaching and for employment - both areas with relevance to the case of graduate students.

Pregnancy and maternity

Parental and other carer responsibilities tend to make invisible demands on students' time, whether they are full- or part-time. Supervisors may need to bear this in mind and agree appropriate arrangements with students. This student who was analyzing and writing her thesis at the time of the baby's arrival describes some of the difficulties:

It's been difficult becoming a mum while keeping the status of a DPhil student. I've felt unable to concentrate on writing while looking after the baby ..and suffering from lack of sleep. And, I haven't been in touch with my supervisor because he prefers to talk about concrete work and I just haven't been able to finish the writing I was supposed to do. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Sexual orientation

We use the term LGBT, which refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.


Disability may be obvious (e.g. a student uses a wheelchair) or unseen (e.g. a student suffers from depression), or develop during the doctorate, as this student describes:

I developed a problem with my hands, and I had to have surgery. I couldn't type; all I could do was read. So I got an extension and now my hands have started to get better, and I've been set up with all the ergonomic things, which has been quite helpful actually. But it's meant a year's delay. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

While disabled students have similar learning and assessment experiences to non-disabled students, disability-related barriers can have a major impact on the ease with which a student can access benefit from those experiences. Since these barriers may differ both between and within forms of disability, there are no absolutes or definitive actions which will be appropriate and effective for all disabled students. What is required of a supervisor is an understanding of the student's learning style, of where she or he is likely to encounter difficulties, and ways in which the supervisor can enable the student to harness abilities appropriate to the research. So, for the supervisor, the supervisory team, and the student the challenge can be seen as an opportunity for creative and shared problem solving rather than a threat to research excellence. It should be noted that not all students choose to disclose a disability at the outset; where they do, they may assume that everyone, from admissions onwards, will be aware, which is not always the case. Below are some links to documents which offer suggestions for supporting students with more common disabilities.

  1. Students with a mobility impairment (including difficulties relating to balance, co-ordination, stamina); and students with mobility issues (e.g. wheelchair users, those suffering from cerebral palsy, ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), those using guide-dogs or hearing-dogs).
  2. Students with a hearing impairment (deaf, deafened or hard of hearing).
  3. Students with a visual impairment.
  4. Students with acute, chronic or long-term illness. These can take many forms. For example: ME/CFS, cystic fibrosis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease (e.g. Crohn's disease), multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy.
  5. Students with dyslexia.
  6. Students experiencing difficulties with mental health. Mental health difficulties can take many forms, for example: depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobias, obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), eating disorders, schizophrenia.

Further information, guidance and resources can be found in the University's Disability-related resources.

See also the Geography Discipline Network's Inclusive Curriculum Project. This site has resources for supporting disabled students studying Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences but also aims to transfer some of the lessons learned to academics, etc, in other disciplines.

A recent study (Pearson et al, 2011) provided quantitative evidence to support the view that students are diverse in many ways, and this diversity is changing over time. The most recently available figures, published in 2011 by HEFCE, confirm this by showing there were large increases in the number of starters to full-time PhD programmes in the UK between 2007-08 and 2009-10 in respect of women (up 15%), students aged 21 or under on commencement (up 23%), students declaring a disability (up 36%), and those with UK domicile from a black or black-British ethnicity (up 29%). This means that some aspects of student diversity are, or are becoming, more visible in our experience and, not unnaturally, this is reflected in the literature. For instance, in the literature, there is much attention to international students and to gender and an increasing interest in disabilities of different kinds (though not always directed specifically at the experience of doctoral students). At the same time, other differences are often overlooked or are invisible, e.g. race (except in the US), sexual orientation, religion and belief. Nevertheless, there is sufficient research evidence to suggest the following.


Despite substantial increases in the number of female academics in most fields, reports of gender-based discrimination and different role responsibilities (e.g. the tendency for caring and welfare roles to be undertaken by women rather than men) remain, often more evident in the sciences and engineering than in the social sciences and humanities; and this gender-disparity is also present in the doctoral student population. As well, within the social sciences, there continue to be gendered differences in experience of academic work partly due to different personal intentions, but also in role responsibilities. This sustained disparity means that it can remain difficult for female students in research teams that are male dominated to participate fully, that women may find access to supervisors more difficult, and that women in fields that are male-dominated may be less likely than men to be included in informal learning opportunities such as heading to the pub at the end of the day. This example may also demonstrate a barrier to inclusion for those who do not drink alcohol for religious, social or medical reasons.


While there has been increased participation by female students, there has been less success as regards participation by those from minority ethnic groups. However, it appears that students regardless of origin appreciate ethnic diversity and feel it enhances their educational experiences.


Doctoral students are still often stereotyped as relatively young with few responsibilities, yet this is not the documented reality. HEFCE (2013) reported that 40% of postgraduate research students in England and Northern Ireland in 2011-12 were aged over 30, and that 62% of postgraduate research students entering study in 2013 were aged over 25. Therefore, students often come to doctoral programmes considerably skilled due to their prior professional experience, and the kinds of skills training on offer may not be relevant; such students may also have responsibilities as carers for children or elder relatives.


Practice, that is, the response of individuals, may often lag behind institutional policies. Thus, some students may fear being judged unfairly if they make their needs known, but generally they recognize the institutional obligation to support them and will often act strategically to get the support they need; they can be aided in this by some kind of institutional induction event which makes apparent all the resources they can call on. Disabled students can encounter difficulties with all aspects of the infrastructure: administration, communication, planning, recruitment, research management, fieldwork, staff and skills development, supervision, feedback and assessment, social experience. The kind of support required will need to include material resources (people, equipment, services), guidance and information, and encouragement. Consequently, dialogue between supervisor and student early on in the doctoral experience is usually very valuable.

Full- or part-time status

Lastly, not often considered is the influence of full or part-time status on academic participation. While many programmes require full-time registration, the actual reality of many students is of being part-time due to the need for paid work. For these students, it can be particularly difficult to access the research cultures of their departments.

The above text is based on:

Carr, P., Friedman, R.,Szalacha, L., Barnett, R., Palepu, A., & Moskowitz, M. (2000). Faculty Perceptions of Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in Academic Medicine. Annals of Internal Medicine, 132(11), 889-896.

Deem, R., & Brehony, K. (2000) Doctoral students' access to research cultures - are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Farrar, V. & Young, R. (2007) Supervising Disabled Research Students (Issues in Postgraduate Education: Management, Teaching and Supervision) London: SRHE.

Goode, J. 2007. 'Managing' disability: Early experiences of university students with disabilities. Disability and Society, 22 (1), 35-48.

Hall, L., & Burns, L. 2009. Identity development and mentoring in doctoral education. Harvard Educational Review, 79(1), 49-70.

HEFCE. (2011) PhD Study: Trends and profiles, 1996-97 to 2009-10. Higher Education Funding Council for England.

HEFCE. (2013) Postgraduate education in England and Northern Ireland: Overview report 2013.

Higher Education Statistics Agency Data. See Higher Education Statistics for the United Kingdom.

Neumann, R., & Rodwell, J. (2009) The 'invisible' part-time research students: A case study of satisfaction and completionStudies in Higher Education, 34 (1), 55-68.

Pearson, M., Cumming, J., Evans, T., Macauley, P. & Ryland, K. (2011) How shall we know them? Capturing the diversity of difference in Australian doctoral candidates and their experiences. Studies in Higher Education, 36(5), 527-542.

Rudd, E., Morrison, E., Picciano, J., & Nerad, M. (2008). Finally equal footing for women in social science careers? CIRGE Spotlight on doctoral education #1. Seattle: CIRGE, University of Washington.

Student Barometer, International and Domestic, Autumn 2012.

University of Oxford. Student statistics for the year 2013.

Walker, G. E., Golde, C. M., Jones, L., Conklin Bueschel, A., & Hutchings, P. (2008). The formation of scholars: rethinking doctoral education for the twenty-first century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Whitla, D., Orfield, G., Silen, W., Teperow, C., Howard, C., & Reede, J. (2003). Educational benefits of diversity in medical school: A survey of students. Academic Medicine (78) 5, 460-466.