The road to Sheffield

One of the first activities we undertook as a research team was to investigate the undergraduate research schemes, similar to Warwick’s Undergraduate research support scheme (URSS) across all UK universities.  We used a systematic approach to our data collection methodology: allocating a set number of universities amongst the team, and developing a bespoke template to capture data based on set criteria agreed in advance so we would be able to compare schemes consistently during analysis.

One hundred and fifty universities later, and we had a comprehensive data set that allowed us to draw a clear picture of the role of undergraduate research schemes (URSs) in the UK. We found that 30% of Universities across the board have URSs however, amongst Russell Group universities, this rises to 83%. So, we are already seeing an elite university bias. Like Warwick, the schemes take place during Summer vacation and offer a bursary of between £1,000-£2,000. Most (67%) are across all Academic disciplines, though some are (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) focused. Unlike Warwick, few offer the opportunity to design the research project or to travel abroad. Because we are approaching wrap with a Widening Participation lens, we were also looking out for mentions of increased accessibility to students. We found only one university mention Widening Participation at all, and that was Sheffield University. (NB this is very different in the US, where widening participation for students is given a lot more prominence).

Once we had written up a case study about Sheffield and collected as much data from their published materials as possible, we decided to make contact and see if we could interview them about their practice. Although they were knee deep in hosting the British Conference for Undergraduate Research (BCUR) they responded and gave us an enthusiastic “Yes”. Over a couple of phone calls to sound each other out and set an agenda for a discussion, it was agreed that we would hold a meeting, and thus the wrap team found themselves on the train to Sheffield in July 2018.

Agenda items included: how the Sheffield Scheme (SURE) works with departments to increase resources and opportunities for students from widening participation backgrounds, how the schemes fit into broader agendas within the universities, applying our learning from the literature about the role and potential of undergraduate research to level the playing field for student outcomes, and generally putting the world to rights.

After we shared our findings from our investigations through the literature and analysis or URSs national, the discussion brought out and consolidated some interesting and useful ideas to contribute to our recommendations of ideas to test and model to both develop the URSS and also undergraduate research at Warwick, and perhaps surprisingly aren’t just focused at a purely practical/logistical level, for example:

  • Co-production should be at heart of developing and testing new ideas
  • Supporters for undergraduate research may come from outside of the university, eg industry sponsors
  • The implicit and explicit benefits of creating a culture of undergraduate research, including who participates in the support of such schemes, and the role of PhD-undergraduate mentoring, peer learning
  • The potential role of departments in providing support and resources to improve the accessibility of UR for all students
  • The importance of longitudinal evaluation to track the impact of these experiences on student outcomes
  • Understanding the economic business case to influence key stakeholders and win strategic support.

The wrap team is excited to have found an ally in our project aims and looks forward to continuing the discussion with and learning from Sheffield.

If you want to be involved in the research, find out how, here.

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