Newer institutions driving social inclusion – U-Multirank

Universities of applied science and younger universities with a strong focus on undergraduate education are powering change and demonstrating the value of widening access to higher education, according to the 2022 European Union-backed U-Multirank.

Now in its ninth year, U-Multirank offers an alternative to the traditional league table approach to university rankings when it comes to comparing and contrasting higher education institutions around the world, offering a broad range of comparison data on teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation, regional engagement and outreach.

The U-Multirank results are based on a survey among participating institutions and the U-Multirank student survey of 62,000 students from 314 institutions. U-Multirank has almost tripled the number of higher education institutions that it ranks since it was launched and now features 2,202 from 96 countries.

The latest incarnation, published on Tuesday 21 June 2022, introduces a new dimension which compares how different institutions perform in terms of social inclusion and attracting underrepresented students.

First generation students

Unsurprisingly, it finds the top performers among the newer universities rather than research-based institutions, particularly in terms of attracting ‘first generation students’, by which it means the first in their family to go to university.

Although U-Multirank tries to veer away from the winners and losers approach used by traditional rankers, their new data shows that Vorarlberg University of Applied Sciences in Austria records 90.5% of its students as first generation, followed by the Polytechnic Institute of Viana do Castelo in Portugal at 88.9%.

At Universidade Lusofona do Porto in Portugal, Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University in Thailand and the University of Salento in Italy, roughly 80% of the institutions’ students are the first in the family to go on to higher education.

Beyond individual institutions, Portugal and Italy (both at 62%) are the countries with the highest share of first generation students, according to U-Multirank data.

Where data is available, the new U-Multirank records the percentage of students with children, which can be a major barrier to going to university, particularly for women in certain countries, Professor Frank Ziegele, one of the two U-Multirank project leaders, told University World News.

The U-Multirank shows that the Durban University of Technology in South Africa has 31.7% of its students looking after children, followed by Siauliai State University of Applied Sciences in Lithuania at 31.3% and Al-Mustaqbal University College in Iraq with 29.8%.

Students with a disability

The latest U-Multirank also highlights universities that are best at attracting and teaching students with disabilities. Here, Reichman University in Israel has 33.2%, followed by the University of Winchester in the United Kingdom with 24.6%, and the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands and the National Distance Education University in Spain (UNED), both having just over 20%.

Ziegele told University World News the new data shines a spotlight on higher education institutions that do not often feature near the top in university rankings and should help politicians and institutions understand how they are doing in tackling social inequality in access to higher education, and social inclusion.

“Although many of the best performers in widening access are younger institutions where the focus is on teaching and learning rather than research, the appearance of universities of applied sciences in the new dimension shows institutions that do well in our rankings for knowledge transfer and co-publications with industry often also perform strongly in attracting first generation students and those from other underrepresented groups,” Ziegele said.

Study fields

As for fields of study, the highest percentages of non-traditional students are found in fields such as social work (65%), nursing (49%), chemistry (45%) and mathematics (43%).

Meanwhile, it is rarer to find non-traditional students in fields such as medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, where they represent less than 30% of the student body.

There are also major differences between national systems, with countries that have rapidly expanded student numbers over the last decades showing higher numbers of underrepresented students in higher education.

“Social inequality in access to higher education has been a big challenge for a long time and a major issue in education policy in many countries, including the European Union,” said Ziegele. “Looking at the performance of universities, good teaching quality and research output is of course crucial, but we can’t neglect universities’ contribution to social goals.

“That’s why we’ve included success in widening access to higher education in our data for the first time this year.”

Professor Frans van Vught, who shares the leadership role of the U-Multirank project with Ziegele, said: “Widening access is a complex issue and our analyses suggest that several factors may explain the substantial differences between countries, institutional profiles and fields.

“National higher education access policies and institutional portfolios of study programmes appear to be relevant, as does risk averse behaviour by non-traditional students, which may well explain why they often choose specific institutions and fields of study.”

A welcome focus on access

Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), based in the United Kingdom, told University World News: “U-Multirank has undertaken some vital work here in gathering information on who attends higher education from different backgrounds across Europe and beyond and the work that universities are doing to make higher education more accessible.

“However, there is a need to better understand the impact of the work that is described in their rankings’ report and to engage collaboratively across countries to bring first generation students into universities and courses where they are currently underrepresented.

“U-Multirank emphasises the need for a global network which can encourage such collaboration, which is why the new World Access to Higher Education Network (WAHEN) launched at the UNESCO Global Higher Education Conference in May has such an important role to play to make access to higher education across the world more equitable.”

U-Multirank’s leaders intend to deepen the study to see if it can find patterns of choice for other underrepresented groups and will be collecting data on gender ratios, mature students, and students with disabilities for future editions.

Outreach programmes

U-Multirank’s 2022 report says the most common outreach programmes for underrepresented groups are targeted guidance and counselling (mentioned by 70% of institutions), cooperation with secondary schools (63%), special media and recruitment campaigns (53%), and partnerships with local and regional communities (50%).

The target groups are not just students from a low socio-economic background, but also students with disabilities, female students – often in combination with access to STEM programmes – asylum seekers, migrant students and mature students.

U-Multirank found that 18% of all institutions said they do not offer any outreach programmes.

Originating at a conference of the European Commission during the French presidency in 2008, since 2017 U-Multirank has been funded by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme and Santander Group. It is run by an independent consortium led by the Centre for Higher Education in Germany, the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente and the Centre for Science and Technology Studies from Leiden University, both in the Netherlands, as well as Fundación Conocimiento y Desarrollo in Spain.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_comms on Twitter. He blogs at