Inclusive and connected higher education

Higher education must play its part in facing up to Europe’s social and democratic challenges. This means ensuring that higher education is inclusive, open to talent from all backgrounds, and that higher education institutions are civic-minded learning networks connected to their communities.

What is it?

Making higher education systems inclusive and connected to society requires the right conditions for students of different backgrounds to succeed. This goes beyond the question of financial support for disadvantaged groups, although this is vital for those from low-income backgrounds.

To promote successful completion of studies, higher education providers should

  • take a holistic look at how admission, teaching and assessment are organised,
  • put measures in place to mentor students and
  • provide academic and non-academic support.

Strategies to help disadvantaged students to access and go on to complete higher education are a promising way to achieve 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 it needed?

Higher education must play its part in facing up to Europe’s social and democratic challenges. This means ensuring that higher education is inclusive, open to talent from all backgrounds, and that higher education institutions are civic-minded learning networks connected to their communities. The profile of the population of students entering and completing higher education should reflect wider society.

The social groups least represented in higher education are more likely to lack basic skills (literacy, numeracy and digital competence), experience of learning independently and a clear idea of what higher education entails. People from disadvantaged socio-economic and with a migrant background remain far less likely to enter and complete higher education. Academics and graduates are too often perceived as detached from the rest of society. Gender segregation by field of study is still pervasive.

What has been done so far?

The European Commission monitors the challenges related to higher education attainment in EU countries, as well as the progress made towards reaching the attainment target. Enhancing the social dimension of higher education is also an important pillar of the Bologna Process, as reconfirmed in 2018 in the Paris Communiqué.

In the Renewed EU agenda for higher education, the European Commission committed to:

  • Directing Erasmus+ support to help HEIs in developing and implementing integrated institutional strategies for inclusion, gender equality and study success from admission to graduation, including through cooperation with schools and VET providers.
  • Promoting development and testing of flexible and modular course design to support access to higher learning through specific priorities for Erasmus+ strategic partnerships.
  • Supporting HEIs wishing to award ECTS points to students for voluntary and community activities, based on existing positive examples.
  • Supporting recognition of qualifications held by refugees to facilitate their access to higher education.

To build evidence on the social dimension of higher education, the European 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 in 28 Participating countries from the European Higher Education Area.

The Eurostudent data cover all aspects of student life: access to higher education, studying, living, and working conditions during studies, mobility experiences (including information about obstacles to mobility), as well as students’ own assessments of their situation. The findings are made publicly available at eurostudent.eu.

Another study looked at the impact of admission systems on higher education outcomes, and in particular the way schools, HEIs and students themselves choose and select study programme. On the basis of countries' policies and strategies concerning streaming in secondary education and autonomy of HEIs, a mapping was carried out of selective, open or mixed admission systems.

In-depth country case studies in 8 countries have resulted in 10 policy recommendations to support schools in choosing potential students, to help students choose HEIs and study programmes and to help HEIs choose the appropriate students. Half of these can be adopted in most countries, whereas the others can result in pilot initiatives with further accompanying research.

How do students choose HEIs and study programmes?

  • Improve the information, advice and guidance available on higher education
  • Improve the architecture of choices provided to students

How do schools choose people that can become students?

  • Pilot changes to how streaming is organised, both into and after upper secondary
  • Pilot changes on how the final year in secondary schooling is delivered
  • Prioritise joint working across schooling and higher education sectors

How do HEIs choose the students they enrol?

  • Link admissions policy to student and labour market demand
  • Incentivise a commitment to social inclusion from HEIs within funding systems
  • Use Bologna tools to ease transition through higher education
  • Pilot a broader range of methods in identifying student potential that give more autonomy to HEIs