Governments must do more to widen access – Eurydice

European governments and higher education institutions are failing to develop coherent policy approaches to improve access, retention and employability, a Eurydice report has found.

“While many countries acknowledge that there are different challenges regarding disadvantaged student groups, few have developed concrete policy priorities, strategies, targets and measures,” the report says.

Commenting on the report, Androulla Vassiliou, former European Commissioner responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, said more needs to be done to ensure success in widening participation, supporting students and educating them for the “complex demands of a fast evolving labour market”.

“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,” she said.

“It is not enough to encourage young people into higher education. We also have to help them succeed in their study programmes as this is vital for jobs and economic growth, as well as for their self esteem.”

The report, Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Access, retention and employability 2014, published on 30 March, is the second in a series examining the evolution of the European Commission’s modernisation agenda for higher education in Europe.

Information for the report was gathered from 36 education systems, including those in all 28 EU states apart from Luxembourg and the Netherlands, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Norway and Turkey.

However, monitoring across Europe is still insufficiently developed to provide an evidence-based picture across Europe.

The study recommends that many countries consider developing systems to ensure Recognition of Prior Learning – the main way of opening opportunities to citizens who have failed to successfully complete upper secondary education – to support all students, in particular those who are disadvantaged.

Drop out rates remain “unacceptably high” in many countries, yet there are few national examples of clear strategies with measureable targets being developed to tackle the problem.

Although more flexible forms of higher education are increasingly becoming possible, more thought needs to go into funding and supporting students taking advantage of such possibilities.

Countries are tending to ignore the potential impact on disadvantaged students of measures taken to improve employability.

Androulla Vassiliou said: “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."

Improving access

In Europe the modernisation agenda and the Europe 2020 strategy both focus on increasing participation in higher education, with a goal that 40% of those aged 30-34 should have a higher education or equivalent qualification by 2020.

However, access is not just a question of increasing numbers but doing so in a socially equitable way, widening participation particularly among young people from disadvantaged families.

The report found that progress in widening access varies greatly across countries. Only a minority of higher education systems have actually defined participation and attainment targets for specified groups and most rely on general objectives.

Ireland is cited as the country with the most comprehensive set of targets related to under-represented groups. The national plan has five objectives:
  • • Institution-wide approaches to access,
  • • Enhancing access through lifelong learning,
  • • Investment in widening participation,
  • • Modernisation of student support, and
  • • Widening participation for people.
Quantitative objectives related to students entering, participating in and completing higher education are set for specific groups of students: those with disabilities, the unemployed, adults or mature students, students with vocational education and training, travellers, and students from a disadvantaged socio-economic background.

The objective in Ireland is to reach a 72% participation rate and a 60% attainment rate in tertiary education for 30-34 year-olds by 2020 and for all socio-economic groups to have entry rates of at least 54% by 2020.

There is systematic monitoring in Ireland, where all institutions are obliged to return details on all new entrants, progressing students and those graduating through the Student Record System, including data on the socio-economic, ethnic and disability status of new entrants.

The report found that different countries focus on different groups. In Belgium’s Flemish community the focus is on children whose parents do not hold a higher education qualification; Finland focuses on male participation to reduce gender differences; and Scotland in the UK focuses on increasing participation of students from publicly funded schools.

Ireland has achieved the most positive outcomes. Students with disabilities trebled from 2% to 6% of the higher education student body between 2004 and 2012, and mature learners aged 23 or over have risen from 9% to 13% of entrants. Part-time learners increased from 7% to 16%.


Ensuring that those who enter higher education as a result of measures to widen access do not drop out through lack of adequate support is a matter of social justice, the report says.

But concerns over the levels of non-completion have increased in many countries and the median rate across the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, indicates that one in three students does not finish their course.

The report says that to tackle this issue particular attention should be paid to first-year students and their skills development.

However, it found that few countries have developed policies to address this issue and target setting is rarely found in relation to groups of students more at risk of dropping out.

In some countries, government policy attempts to motivate universities to decrease the drop-out rate. In Belgium (Flemish community) institutions are financed based on output, which provides an incentive to pay attention to retention, the report says. Austria includes action to address problems related to drop-out in the performance agreements concluded with universities.

Challenges for employability

The report says employability plays a central role in the European Commission’s higher education reform strategy.

“It is crucial to strengthen employability for all students,” it says. “It is also necessary to recognise that employability is an integral element of the widening participation agenda.

“Widening participation does not stop at providing access to students from under-represented groups, but has to include measures ensuring that each student completes their studies and has a successful transition to the labour market.”

One important way to ensure the relevance of higher education to the labour market, the report says, is through consulting or involving employers, employers’ organisations and business representatives in the various steps of developing and evaluating higher education study programmes.

But employers are more often involved in decision-making or consultative bodies than they are in curriculum development or teaching.

Students who participate in practical training or work placements are more likely to find jobs than their counterparts without relevant work experience.

However, figures showing the proportion of students participating in practical training or work placements are not available in most countries.

Among those countries with data, Finland has the highest participation, not least because all first-cycle polytechnic courses include at least three months' work placement and practical training is compulsory for some university degrees.

Although many countries provide financial incentives to universities and employers to increase the number of traineeships, targeted initiatives focusing on disadvantages students exist only in the United Kingdom.

“Employability is a high policy priority, but again engagement in positive action varies between countries, and graduate surveys in particular could be better exploited,” the report says. “Irrespective of the approach and measures taken in relation to employability, countries tend to ignore the potential impact on disadvantaged students."