Global Equality and Diversity awards: Nomination - Organizational Learning Research Group, experiences of formal management education in a super-diverse context

Formal management education and super-diversity: sustaining relevance at a leading UK management school

Principle investigator: Dr. Daniel Hartley
Research associate: Daniel J Uribe

Formal and informal management learning and experiences of relevance in a super-diverse context: A three year ethnography at a leading UK management school

Lead investigator: Dr. Daniel Hartley
Research Associate: Daniel J. Uribe

The Organizational Learning Research Group at Queen Mary has ran a longitudinal research project from January 2013 to explore undergraduate student experiences of formal management education within a super-diverse context. Over almost three years, the research team has created the world's largest archive of data on undergraduate management student experience, and shown how management education can provide an enhanced context to explore issues relating to globalization, diversity and equality. Significantly, whilst higher education is often related to opportunities for equality and social mobility for a diverse range of people, exploration of how undergraduates learn and experience formal education remains peripheral within studies of higher education. This research is helping direct new attention to this marginal majority and showing how its unique, super-diverse nature implicates constraints and opportunities that are relevant to understanding global social change and mobility more widely.

Over the first year and a half period, the lead investigator employed ethnographic research methods such as one-to-one and focus-group interviews, participant observation and shadowing to explore the experiences of around 50 undergraduates attending QMUL's School of Business Management. On the basis of insight gained into differences amongst students as the axes upon which experiences can vary, further support was secured from QMUL's 'Engagement, Retention and Success' fund to extend the research to explore the experiences and outcomes of students from social groups where fewer people attend higher education. Recruitment of sensitive communities is often recognised as implicating difficulties and has created an absence of understanding around the factors and practices involved in widening or limiting participation in higher education. In response, the study is creating feedback loops between multiple in-school and external sites involved in widening participation in higher education,attuning existing frameworks to the complex nature of diversity in the sites of undergraduate management education, and generating insight into areas otherwise existing beyond researchers' gaze. Whereas other studies employing statistical methods lack insight into students' everyday experiences of formal management education, this research engages participants both quantitatively and qualitatively in order to understand how more generalized aspects of diversity interact and are negotiated collectively as a normal aspect of life in super-diverse contexts.

The quantitative element to the study explores which aspects of student background shape academic performance and the retention of students within higher education. Working together closely, the lead investigator and research associate from the Institute of Education, University of London examine how factors like educational background and socio-economic status interact with other variables over a five year period to drive or limit student's academic performance and likelihood to remain in higher education. Sympathetic to the super-diverse settings within which the study is based, the research team is developing existing widening participation definitions to more accurately represent the heightened polarities and subtle overlaps of diversity in sites such as QMUL and North East London. The quantitative element is being replicated within the world-leading Organizational Psychology department and management school at Birkbeck College, University of London. The research team are also collaborating with an award-winning researcher at the University of Wollongong, Australia to explore experiences of formal education within a unique site of indigenous Australian and immigrant communities.

Whilst the quantitative aspect of the study provides robust analysis of how student background shapes outcomes, the in-depth qualitative aspect elicits some of the practices that sustain or limit academic performance and the likelihood of students reaming in university. This aspect of the research focuses upon incidents of informal learning as students from different backgrounds interact in sites of co-presence in and around formal education such as lectures, seminars, halls of residence and social events.

Findings show that a great deal of learning occurs informally across different sites of co-presence and that incidents of interaction between different students can shape both academic performance and students' likelihood of continuing higher education. Whereas some sites have an overt focus upon teaching students to manage diversity or encouraging them to mix with strangers, for example, the findings show that students also learn through incidents occurring overlooked or unheard within formal settings. Many such incidents are emotionally charged and can lead to student attitudes closing-up as well as becoming more receptive to learning and mixing with different people. The findings also show that traditional styles of education can privilege those with established network capital and can lead others to 'drop-out' or perceive higher education as being “hegemonic - just the same as the schools and the government” (quote from WP interviewee). Yet such incidents can lead to motivation and increased engagement for those versatile enough to make do with them as opportunities to learn and network, driving improved academic performance too. Other findings similarly show that background variables in themselves do not determine academic performance or student retention and that everyday incidents arising within sites of co-presence enable students to negotiate their significance, even relate to them as advantage or disadvantage anew. Drawing our findings from the most diverse site within the Russell Group of universities, we occupy a privileged position to understand how differences amongst students contribute toward academic performance and student retention as well as how incidents of interaction between different students can shape possibilities for social equality and mobility. Whilst relating formal education to openings for social equality and mobility has a well-carved genealogy, we highlight how new inspiration may be found by studies focusing upon contexts of management education, particularly those that are most diverse, and set within dense, urban areas. Indeed, for as our research shows, management education not only enriches opportunities for students to learn to manage diversity formally, but also intensifies the normal, everyday encounters through which people negotiate differences and openings for social equality and mobility become manifest.