‘Modernising HE’ debate on diversity, success rates

Improving attainment among underrepresented groups in higher education and stemming drop-out rates across Europe were top of the agenda at a workshop of the EMMA – Embracing the Modernisation Agenda – partnership in Brussels last month.

EMMA is a response to the European Commission’s September 2011 communication on “Supporting Growth and Jobs – An agenda for the modernisation of Europe’s higher education systems”, which its partners interpreted as an invitation for in-depth debate on the main challenges facing the sector that the commission identified.

These challenges are: increasing higher education attainment levels; improving quality and relevance; strengthening quality through mobility and cross-border cooperation; linking higher education, research and business; and improving governance and funding.

EMMA’s partners are Spain’s Compostela Group of Universities, Brussels Education Services – which promotes university cooperation and university-society relations – the Flemish Employers’ Association and the Erasmus Mundus Association.

The project is collecting information and holding debates aimed at informing the modernisation agenda, and case studies were presented at the workshop held in Brussels on 25 February.

Thijs Verbeurgt of the department of educational affairs at Ghent University in Belgium presented “ExpandO – Peer learning in the Social Dimension of European higher education”.

It is a European Union-funded project aimed at tackling challenges of widening access and improving success rates in underrepresented groups in six universities, in Belgium, Lithuania, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the UK.

The drop-out issue

In Belgium, said Verbeurgt, universities can experience drop-out rates of up to 50% on popular courses.

“This is outrageous,” said Dr Tony Hoare of the school of geographical sciences at the University of Bristol in the UK, whose talk considered attainment levels and student diversity. “A UK vice-chancellor reporting such drop-out rates would soon have to look out for a new job,” he said – stressing that this was a comment made in his personal capacity.

This led to discussion on the difference between the admission practices of continental universities and the Anglo-Saxon model with its strict screening of students, and how these can interact with the policy goal of attracting students from underrepresented groups and stemming drop-out rates.

The audience took note of the arguments of KU Leuven University Rector Professor Mark Waer, who opened the academic year by drawing a distinction between “excellence by inclusion" and "excellence by selection”, which has been widely quoted and discussed.

In his address, Waer said: “If continental European universities wish to take inspiration from the Anglo-Saxon model – including strict selection and frequent refusals of students at an early stage of their development – they must ask themselves whether such an approach is in fact acceptable and necessary to our model of society. This is debatable.

“Perhaps there is another, better path to creating excellent universities. We might call such a path, in the words of Michael Crow, the charismatic president of Arizona State University, ‘excellence by inclusion’,” said Waer.

“Not everyone fits the mould of the early bloomer, for whom entrance exams are often written. Young people with other personality traits or an alternative growth rhythm fall by the wayside. And including these students does not necessarily need to be expensive or inefficient.”

Waer said that the statistic of around half of Flemish university students failing in the first year was “often cited as an argument against the system of widespread acceptance of first-year students”, and referred to another statistic – that five out of six Flemish students obtain a post-secondary degree at a university or university college.

“For these reasons the selection is probably best postponed until after the bachelor level, to account for the high variability in maturity and social malleability of 18-year-olds.”


Addressing the diversity issue, Hoare said this was not easy and that current tuition fee regulations in the UK demanded that universities wanting to charge more than standard fees had to work out recruitment strategies for underprivileged and underrepresented groups.

These must be approved by the watchdog body OFFA – Office for Fair Access – which was set up following the introduction of higher tuition fees and evaluates institutional strategies for sustaining or improving access and student success and employability.

The higher education funding formula, said Hoare, now includes ‘wider participation’ – and 30% or more of tuition fee income now goes to widening participation.

The UK government has called for “clear evidence-based assessment in respect of what works in widening access”.

Universities will need to show how their approach helps to improve access and student success for underrepresented groups, and institutions must have programmes in place to capture how their financial support is helping to achieve their aims.

“We are not just interested in how much you are spending on access and student success, but how much progress you are making, both at your institution and to the higher education sector as a whole,” the OFFA guidance states.

Vice-president of the European Access Network and president of the Compostela Group of Universities, which is coordinating the EMMA project, Professor Maurits van Rooijen, told University World News:

“The two main angles to approach widening participation and bringing underrepresented groups into higher education are, of course, the ideological approach (we want a fairer and more harmonious development of our society) and, equally valid, a rational, economic approach.

“A knowledge economy cannot afford to be careless with its talent, and it is wasteful to ignore good minds just because of colour of skin, economic background of parents, place of living, religion etc.

“So we should go out actively and bring those good minds into higher education and into employment.”

The EMMA project will present its work and recommendations later this year.