Making higher education systems inclusive and connected to society requires providing the right conditions for students of different backgrounds to succeed. This goes beyond the question of offering financial support to disadvantaged groups, although this is vital for those from low-income backgrounds. To ensure that the student body entering and graduating from European higher education institutions reflects the diversity of Europe’s population, improved access and completion rates by disadvantaged and underrepresented groups should be targeted. To this end, national authorities and higher education institutions should:
- take a holistic look at how admission, teaching and assessment are organised
- put measures in place to mentor students
- provide both academic and non-academic support
Strategies to help disadvantaged and underrepresented students access and go on to complete higher education are a promising way of achieving these objectives. Flexible study options (part-time or online) and more widespread recognition of prior learning are also required to make higher education more accessible, particularly for adult learners.
Why is inclusivity and connectivity important?
Higher education must play its part in tackling Europe’s social and democratic challenges. This means ensuring that higher education is inclusive and that its institutions are well connected to their communities. Social groups least represented in higher education are more likely to lack basic skills (literacy, numeracy and digital competence), experience of independent learning, and a clear idea of what higher education entails. Furthermore, citizens from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those with migrant backgrounds remain far less likely to enter and complete higher education. Gender segregation by field of study also remains pervasive.
What has the EU done so far?
The European Commission monitors the challenges related to higher education attainment in EU countries, as well as progress made towards reaching attainment targets, through the framework of the European Semester. Enhancing the social dimension of higher education is also an important pillar of the Bologna Process, as reconfirmed in the 2018 Paris Communiqué.
In the Renewed EU agenda for higher education, the Commission committed to:
- Direct Erasmus+ support to help higher education institutions (HEIs) develop and implement integrated institutional strategies for inclusion, gender equality and study success from admission to graduation; including through cooperation with schools and vocational education and training providers
- Promote the development and testing of flexible and modular programmes of study supporting access to higher learning through specific priorities for Erasmus+ strategic partnerships
- Support HEIs wishing to award European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) points to students for voluntary and community activities based on existing positive examples
- Support the recognition of qualifications held by refugees to facilitate their access to higher education
To build evidence on the social dimension of higher education, the Commission has been co-financing the Eurostudent project. It documents the social and economic conditions of student life in Europe. Eurostudent carries out regular surveys among more than 320, 000 students and self-assessments in 27 participating countries from the European Higher Education Area. A Commission study examined the impact of admission systems on higher education outcomes, in particular the way schools, HEIs and students themselves select study programmes. On the basis of countries’ policies and strategies concerning streaming in secondary education and the autonomy of HEIs, a mapping activity was carried out of ‘selective’, ‘open’ and ‘mixed’ admission systems.
In-depth case studies in eight countries have resulted in ten policy recommendations to support schools and HEIs to choose potential students and to help students choose HEIs and study programmes. Half of these recommendations can be adopted in most countries, while the others may result in pilot initiatives with further accompanying research. The ET2020 Working Group on Higher Education organised a peer learning activity in April 2019, which concluded that while social inclusion is high on the agenda in EU Member States, there are very few national strategies and comprehensive approaches with long-term policy commitments on social inclusion in higher education. Higher education inclusion policies should be part of a broader framework of cross-sectoral policies. Developing, strengthening and expanding higher education institutions’ links with schools is key to improving inclusivity.
Evidence-based policies for enhancing inclusion in higher education require investment in the identification of disadvantaged and target groups, in measuring progress towards targets, in monitoring the intended and unintended effects of inclusion policies, and in analysing the complexity of underlying factors. Greater investment is also needed in the training of higher education staff to enhance and adapt learning and teaching practices to students from disadvantaged groups.
How to help students choose higher education institutions and study programmes?
- Enhance the information, advice and guidance available on higher education. The Commission is supporting U-Multirank, a user-driven tool to compare universities
- Improve the range of choices on offer to students. The Commission supports, through the Erasmus+ programme, cooperation of universities to widen study choices they offer
How to assist higher education institutions in choosing students?
- Develop more comprehensive approaches to higher education inclusion policies with long-term commitments and an action plan including policy priorities and targets
- Link admissions policy to student and labour market demand. The Council Recommendation on tracking graduates calls on Member States to set up a graduate tracking system to provide data on the relevance of their higher education systems
- Incentivise commitment to social inclusion from higher education institutions through funding systems. The peer learning activity organized in the framework of the ET2020 Working Group on performance-based funding provided useful insights into how to involve higher education institutions in setting strategic objectives
- Use tools developed as part of the Bologna Process to ease the transition into higher education
- Support should be available for academic and administrative staff in higher education institutions to enhance the quality of learning and teaching. The European Forum for Enhanced Collaboration in Teaching (EFFECT) project, supported by the Erasmus+ programme, looks into the ways in which learning and teaching in higher education institutions could be better supported