More talk than action on HE access and retention

Despite paying considerable lip service to hot higher education issues such as access, retention and employability, most European countries are failing to set clear and precise targets or monitor progress in these areas, and their approaches and levels of engagement differ greatly, says a report published by the European Commission last week.

In the area of access, for instance, only nine European countries have actually defined attainment targets for specific groups, monitoring of diversity is rare and even where information exists it is usually not exploited.

Further, the study found quality assurance agencies to be minimally involved in assessing or monitoring activity in areas that are considered top policy priorities across Europe.

The report, Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Access, retention and employability 2014, was produced by the European Commission, the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, and Eurydice.

It “sheds light on current national and institutional policies and practices aimed at increasing and widening access, reducing student dropout, and improving the employability of higher education graduates in Europe”.

The main objective is to support reform in European Union countries by analysing national policies and highlighting successful evidence-based practice. The report is the second in a series that charts the evolution of the modernisation agenda for higher education in Europe, and follows a 2011 report on funding and the social dimension.

It examines policy and practice related to the student experience through three stages: access, which requires awareness of the offer of higher education, requirements to be admitted and the process of admission; progression through study, including support that may be provided when problems are encountered; and the transition to the labour market.


Information was gathered from three sources. The primary source was the national units of Eurydice, which provided information on policy and practice from 36 education systems – all EU members states except Luxembourg and The Netherlands, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Norway and Turkey.

Second, information was obtained from quality assurance agencies in 12 countries, which responded to questionnaires; and from site visits to universities in eight countries, aimed at better understanding the relationship between policy and institutional practice.

The eight universities were Ghent in Belgium, Charles in Czech Republic, Aachen in Germany, Tallinn in Estonia, Cork in Ireland, Athens University of Economics and Business in Greece, Université Paris-Est Créteil in France, and Jyväskylä in Finland.


Despite European policy stressing the social dimension of higher education and countries committing to the Bologna process and to develop strategies and define measurable targets, “only nine countries have actually defined attainment targets for specified groups”.

These countries, the report says, illustrate that action is taking place at national level and that a variety of policy models and approaches exist. But progress on monitoring was slow and monitoring practices varied considerably.

“There is therefore a long way to go before a convincing, evidence-based, European-wide picture of progress in widening access is possible to obtain.” Even issues that are a major focus of discussion on under-representation in higher education are not often monitored.

“Migrant status data is captured in 13 systems, and data on ethnicity of students and staff in only eight. Meanwhile only 13 systems collect data on the labour market status of students prior to entry into higher education,” says the report.

“Even when data is collected, it is not necessarily always exploited. When asked about the main changes that have taken place over a period of 10 years, 19 systems – including a majority that collect information related to different characteristics of students – were unable to report on changes to the diversity of the student body.”

The study found that bridging programmes and recognition of prior learning were access features in about half of Europe’s higher education systems – but they are most prevalent in the north and west of Europe.

“There are few examples of an alternative route accounting for more than 10% of entrants. The evidence from quality assurance agencies suggests that their role in widening access is extremely limited, and that a focus on access and admissions is far from being the norm.”


Student retention is seen as a key performance indicator for higher education systems, and a key goal. But the report finds a crying need for greater clarity in definitions, both for national policy steering documents and for statistical purposes.

“In the context of widening participation, if governments encourage a broader range of students into higher education, there is also a social responsibility to help reduce the psychological, financial and-or emotional risks of non-completion.”

Amazingly, despite the growing importance of retention, a “significant” number of countries – 13 – do not systematically calculate completion and-or drop-out rates.

“This includes countries that have policies addressing retention and completion, but clearly lack basic data to analyse their impact. Even when completion rate data is collected, it is hardly ever differentiated by specific student profiles or characteristics.

“Clear and precise targets related to the improvement in the rates of retention are not commonly found. Instead, countries usually mention the general, overarching goal of reducing drop-out and strengthening retention and completion of studies,” says the report.

At the policy level, there are only 10 countries with performance-based funding mechanisms in which part of an institution’s funding depends on reaching agreed results in a defined time.

“A number of developments have taken place, however, to encourage students to finish their studies during a 'regular' period of time. The focus tends to be on measures that incentivise students who finish within a defined period, or penalise those who do not,” says the report.

A major way of tackling non-completion is through information, advice and guidance – particularly for those most at risk of dropping out.

While guidance was “ubiquitous in all systems”, country information and site visits revealed resource difficulties, with counseling services “too stretched by increased demand to be able to target and reach those most in need”, says the report.

“Although around half of the higher education systems claim to use data on retention and dropout in their quality assurance processes, there is little evidence that such information is followed up in an attempt to understand and address the underlying causes of dropout.”


The report revealed that most European countries offered opportunities for students to organise studies in a more flexible way than traditional full-time arrangements.

“But the understanding of part-time studies varies greatly across Europe, and even in countries with no formal offer of part-time studies, students may have the possibility to organise their programme to study in a de facto part-time mode.”

In several countries, part-time studies require higher private financial investment than traditional studies. This suggests that part-time provision is not always aimed at widening participation to disadvantaged social groups, but targets other categories of the population.

“In almost all countries, higher education institutions are able to decide the amount of part-time provision offered, and most countries claim that the majority of higher education institutions offer part-time studies,” says the report.

“The experience from the study visits shows, however, that the degree of activity can vary significantly between faculties and departments.”


Employability is a priority topic in higher education policy debates, the report says, but approaches and levels of engagement vary considerably across Europe.

Some countries take an employment-centred approach that focuses on graduate employment rates, others stress skills development and competences relevant to the labour market, and several combine the two approaches. There are also differences regarding the ways countries encourage higher education institutions to improve the employability of graduates.

“The most common way is through quality assurance: the majority of systems now require higher education institutions to submit employability-related information in quality assurance procedures,” says the report.

Several countries have introduced incentives for universities to improve their employability performance, “with one prominent mechanism being to make employability-related information public for both current and prospective students. In some countries, public funding levels are linked with employability performance,” the report finds.

But it found limitations in how quality agencies consider information on graduates, and none systematically analyse job opportunities in relation to the social profiles of graduates.

“It is therefore impossible to know whether factors such as socio-economic disadvantage or ethnicity – which are known to have an impact on access and completion of higher education – may also have an impact on employment after graduation.”

In 18 education systems, the study found, institutions must involve employers in at least one of the following areas: curriculum development, teaching, participation in decision-making bodies and external quality assurance.

“Several countries also oblige higher education institutions to include practical training in (some) higher education study programmes.

“Financial incentives can be found in some countries for higher education institutions to establish university-business cooperation projects. Funding is also used to stimulate students' practical training in order to improve their work-related skills."

The report suggests that more countries use graduate surveys to evaluate the impact of the measures they take on graduate employability. Also:

“Irrespective of the approach and measures taken in relation to employability, countries tend to target students or graduates as a whole, without concentrating on specific – disadvantaged – groups of students,” says the report.

“This indicates that there is often a need for the widening participation agenda to be followed through to cover retention issues and also employability policies and practice."


In a foreword to the report Androulla Vassiliou, European commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, wrote much was being done to widen participation, support students and educate them for the complex demands of a fast-evolving labour market. There were many examples of good policy and good practice – but more needed to be done.

“Across Europe, we are becoming increasingly conscious that not only do we have to invest more in higher education, but we also have to invest more wisely,” said Vassiliou. “It is not enough to encourage young people into higher education. We also have to help them succeed in study programmes as this is vital for jobs and economic growth, as well as for self-esteem.

“More can be done to ensure that students receive good academic guidance before they enter higher education, that they are properly supported while in higher education and that they know about employment opportunities when graduating."

* The managing editor of the report is Arlette Delhaxhe and the authors are David Crosier, Anna Horvath, Viera Kerpanova, Daniela Kocanova and Jari Matti Riiheläinen, supported by external expert Hanne Smidt Sodergard.