Engaging all students
Developed by Western Balkans Institute Team
Creation of more inclusive higher education (hereinafter HE) policies and practices across Europe is gaining pace for the past two decades and requires specific attention in order to ensure and further promote the somewhat undermined importance of HE social dimension (apart from the more obvious economic one, i.e. studying for the purposes of getting better jobs in the labor market) and its influence upon democratic life. Thriving in HE is not an easy task, but for some students it becomes so burdensome and demanding that they require specific, well-targeted support measures in order to maintain engaged and motivated, preventing them from dropping out. It is well observed that vast literature on the subject recognizes different aspects to be addressed by the supporting measures that are nevertheless highly inter-connected: 1. broadening access/intake to HE to include underrepresented students; 2. widening and deepening the engagement and participation level of underrepresented students, as well as 3. reducing dropout rates in HE (also defined in European Commission Communique (2017)) which is normally linked to poor efficiency of HE systems and also high rates of inequality whereby students from disadvantaged socioeconomic background, remote areas, coming from different ethnic groups, migrants or those having a disability or mental health issues are much more prone to drop out/experience academic or life failure compared to their colleagues in more stable life positions. Specific needs of these sub groups (students’ expectations from HE should be considered) of underrepresented students slightly differ across European countries, but some of the common grounds in understanding their position in HE normally includes the following barriers: discrimination and bias, inappropriate infrastructure-technology assistance for students with disabilities, language barriers for Roma (considered to be most underrepresented student group in Europe with only 1-4% of Roma holding higher education degrees) and migrant students, poor background knowledge, inflexible and lengthily study cycles/courses, etc. Hence, the engagement level of underrepresented students in HE can be increased and supported through genuine commitment of HEIs to underpin diversity and inclusion and thereby provide for the promise of solutions to the stated obstacles. Key takeaways from the available literature and practices may argue that even though one size does not fit all, this genuine commitment entails at minimum:
Looking at the recent statistics, in 2018 c. 57% of all graduates from HEIs in Europe were women while attainment rates also showed to be higher with native population in the majority of EU countries. Even though completion rates in HE across Europe remain relatively stable with the majority of countries reaching 40% attainment rate of HE graduates as per Europe 2020 agenda, in some countries, e.g. Belgium, Greece, France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia, and Serbia further efforts are needed with this regard (LFS table edat_lfs_9912, Eurostat). In addition, the ongoing pandemic of COVID19 showcased the inequality present in different educational levels setting up the ground for making educational practices more inclusive through courses and learning materials available and accessible to all learners everywhere boosting further innovation in teaching and learning practices. Nevertheless, the impact of the crises may be severe in terms of increased dropout from HE due to financial and mental health issues faced by students and their families across the world. The recent analysis on the COVID19 impact on HE (Farnell, Skledar Matijević, & Šćukanec Schmidt, 2021) defines as one of the core policy objectives for the HE in the upcoming period to set up system-level schemes to further support access, retention and completion of underrepresented, vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in higher education.
At the HE institutions level the Report emphases the need for the following actions to take place:
- support both academic staff and students to better adapt teaching/learning in an online environment; ensure more flexibility to enable students to successfully achieve their learning outcomes.
- provide additional academic, psychological and financial support to vulnerable groups of students to prevent their disengagement and drop-out.
- set up support measures to ensure that international students receive appropriate academic and psychological support and that they have equal access to online learning tools.
Both matters of equity and equality seem to have been put higher on national HE policy agendas and institutional HEIs approaches across Europe and globally as a result of COVID19 impact.
The focus of this contribution is on the afore mentioned aspects 2 and 3 (HEIs institutional rather than HE systemic level of engagement provision under aspect 1) whereby the existent cohort of different measures and mechanisms (practices) in place is acknowledged and explored with reference to the inclusive and engaging HEIs approaches in the consortium countries including the United Kingdom, Lithuania, Spain, Greece and the Republic of Serbia and other European countries.
Practices that work
Broadening access/intake to HE to include underrepresented students. Despite the rational understanding that inclusion of underrepresented students is in the best interest of HEIs themselves (enlarged student body), this is not necessary always to be assumed and some national level policy frameworks were found to be of particular importance in pushing HEIs towards this goal. A good example is the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015 – 2021(Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, 2020) in Ireland which made equity of access to HE a fundamental principle of Irish education policy and through which different pathways to HE were introduced and supported through 30 actions designed to help underrepresented groups, i.e. socio-economically disadvantaged, mature or disabled students and members of the traveler community get into tertiary education.
Different financial support schemes have proven to work in terms of increasing studying opportunity for underrepresented students. Apart from direct financial support to students, i.e., grants, scholarships and loans, indirect support through family need-based funding is applied. Kotmann et al. (2019) offer some conclusions on grant schemes available to support access to HE in different national contexts. In Croatia for instance European Social Fund (ESF) was recently used to support participation of vulnerable groups in HE in order to increase overall participation to 35% by 2020. In France, (Fack and Grenet, 2015) major higher education support program is the Bourses d’enseignement supérieur sur Criteres Sociaux – a national financial support scheme for students from low-income families who want to enter HE. The scheme offers different grant amounts since 2004/2005 academic year depending of the family situation and annually assessed needs (indicators including the number of children in the family, parents’ income and tax history and distance from home to HEI). The scheme is open for re-applying annually and data suggest that yearly cash grant in the amount of 1,500 EUR contributed to 2.7 percentage points increase in the level of overall enrolment in public universities. Similar support scheme for parents of students in the first cycle is available also in Greece.
Widening and deepening the engagement and participation level of underrepresented students in HEIs. Preschool Teacher Education College in Vršac, Serbia has a history in conducting teachers initial training courses taking place in Serbian and Romani language (bilingual programs) which is a specific measure introduced to promote intercultural learning and school climate. In doing so the College attracted more Roma students from Vršac and other Serbian cities and towns and increased their motivaion to study and participate actively in the work of Student Parliament.
Some practices introduced to address COVID19 emerging needs for support at universities in Europe regarding teaching and learning included: support for teaching staff through a team of blended learning experts (learning designers, academic counsellors, e-mentors, learning engineers) in-house webinars for teachers on distance learning pedagogy – virtual afterwork sessions for exchange of best practices at the University of Geneva. Teachers were also equipped with guides for teaching staff on adapting online teaching to different situations and to students with specific needs. Underrepresented students at the University of Granada were provided with an online support meeting for assisting their learning process. Also, some HEIs have provided emergency funding and loan schemes to assist purchasing of equipment necessary for distance learning for students at risk (Gatti et al, 2020).
Baneres, Rodriguez and Guerrero explore the use of an early warning system (EWS) detecting at risk students during COVID19 online provision of HE by enabling personalized quantitative and qualitative feedback as one of the possible intervention mechanisms tracking students’ progress in virtual learning environment on continuous basis (performing formative progress assessments and predictions). EWS works on gradual at-risk model (GAR) where predictive models on possible failure are generated for each course taken by the student providing recommendations to the student on courses in which she or he is at-risk.
An example of innovative university structures supporting equality and diversity is University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom central Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (EDIC) with representatives from across the university, including students and staff and with the mission to monitor the University commitment and compliance with Equality Act 2020, while also representing a contact point for approval, review and embedding of the University’s equality and diversity policies, strategies, action plans and projects. Gender Equality Steering Group, LGBT Champions Group, Equally Safe (Gender Based Violence) Steering Group, Disability and Wellbeing Service, Widening Access Service and Project Search (a project supporting young people with learning difficulties into employment) all report to EDIC.
Reducing dropout rates in HE/at HEIs. Flemish region in Belgium introduced a short cycle HE programs leading to Associate degree (at EQF level 5) as an alternative approach shortening the HE duration. This proved to be a significant element in students’ motivation to obtain HE degree (also with possibility to continue to professional BA degree) in 10 areas of studies. More information:
Prevention of dropout rates in HE has much to do with students’ expectations and prior preparedness and competence level obtained in secondary education. In 2017 Ministry of National Education, Youth and Sports in France thus developed a Plan Étudiants: accompanier chacun vers la réussite (Plan for students leading each one of them to success) which is focus on 5 activities to be implemented in collaboration between HEIs and secondary school (lycées -grammar schools) in order to influence more informed student choices. Measures/activities introduced include: (1) insuring that each lycée has two senior teachers that provide individual counselling to students working on their study project in the final year of high school; (2) the integration of two orientation weeks in the final year; (3) having an in-depth review of each student’s proposed orientation project by the class council; (4) enhancing the dialogue between secondary and higher education institutions under the authority of the Rectors; and (5) the implementation of a “student ambassador” scheme. More information:
- Improving accessibility and usefulness of career guidance and counselling services at HEIs in order to address the teaching and non-teaching staff and students’ issues especially emerged from the COVID19 crises (evidence-based planning and delivery of support).
- Support to establishment of Romani study department and Roma language (possibly any other European minority language/s) to be studied at HEIs could be viewed as a support measure in promotion of different cultures and languages, and hence inclusion and diversity from early education onto tertiary education level.
- (Digital) Early Warning System should be developed to track and support individual learning experience and academic success of (at risk) students.
- Further direct cooperation arrangement should be defined among different educational levels and in particular secondary schools (in both general education and VET) and HEIs.
- Introduction of more comprehensive ways of collecting feedback from graduates on targeted support and needs (participatory approach in co-creating measures) should be explored as active participation in the course of studying for students at risk is of particular importance for their overall well-being, self-esteem and academic success. This may be attained also through a more structured collaboration between university structures and student representation bodies, e.g. student unions, etc.
- In 2020, an average of 9.9 % of young people (aged 18-24) in the EU were early leavers from education and training, in other words, they had completed at most a lower secondary education and were not in further education or training during the four weeks preceding the survey. Hence, increased intake in HE (especially with the vulnerable youth population) could be supported by recognition mechanism of non-formal education as well as transition pathways from VET secondary education to HE.
- Creation of European repository of best practices and case studies on inclusive HE systems and HEI measures could be highly useful open educational resource underpinning engagement and participation of underrepresented students.
- Inclusive policies and practices should form part of the initial teaching education and also their CPD in line with personal development plans. CPD offer should include different approaches to different target subgroups of underrepresented students relevant to the local context. Non-teaching staff at tertiary education should have an entry training on institutional policies and practices ensuring quality of services provision for all
- HEI partnership with external, community organizations (community engagement including with public and private partners and NGOs) could be highly relevant in understanding local needs of the most vulnerable society members and addressing them through educational program offer and learning and logistical support (proactive inclusion/engagement measures).
- Increasing opportunity for participation of the underrepresented students in mobility schemes within the country and internationally and supporting participation in non-formal learning opportunities (co-implemented and designed with partners implementing non-formal education offers) that is validated by the HEI (including through issuing ECTS for learning outcomes) is important incentive for students’ engagement and ongoing academic motivation and success.
Baneres, D., Rodríguez, M.E., & Guerrero, A. (2020). An Early Warning System to Detect At-Risk Students in Online Higher Education. Applied Sciences, 10(13):4427. doi:10.3390/app10134427
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 Most common categories of disability should be looked at for targeted support provision including: visual impairment, hearing impairment, deafness, blindness, orthopedic impairment, speech impairment, multiple disabilities.