New social inclusion indicators for higher education institutions

Social inclusion is a critical topic in higher education. Higher education institutions can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by providing access to quality education (SDG 4) and reducing inequalities (SDG 10) in society.

Recognising the need for more inclusive education in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), 47 EHEA countries adopted the Principles and Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the EHEA in 2020. These guidelines propose 10 principles for 2020-30 to promote social inclusion in higher education at the national level.

Ranking for social inclusion

In 2019 U-Multirank responded to the growing need for information on the social inclusiveness of higher education by developing and introducing a set of indicators on social inclusion in its annual data collection.

This set comprised indicators on the relative number of students from under-represented groups and on outreach activities organised by participating higher education institutions. These under-represented groups refer to students from non-academic family backgrounds, students with disabilities, mature students, students with children and female students.

The 2022 ranking showed that there are clear issues when it comes to two major categories of under-represented groups: first-generation students and disabled students. The data for these two categories appears to be related to factors at the subject level, the institutional level and the national level.

When trying to understand differences in the data between institutions these multi-level differences need to be taken into account. While this limits the use of the information for ranking purposes, it enriches the potential for understanding and for inter-institutional mutual learning.

Co-created guidelines on social inclusion indicators

This set of U-Multirank indicators is a first step towards a more complete set of conceptually sound and feasible indicators on social inclusion. That is why the U-Multirank team has continued its quest for contributions to such indicators.

Between 2020 and 2022, the U-Multirank team engaged international experts and key stakeholders to brainstorm concrete guidelines at the institutional level for social inclusion indicators. A final version of these guidelines will be discussed at a webinar on 17 January.

These guidelines are not intended as a strict recommendation for what higher education institutions should do, but rather as a brief point of reference highlighting some of the dilemmas and potential alternatives for developing internationally comparable social inclusion indicators at the institutional level.

We hope that the document can further increase awareness and stimulate a discussion about indicators at the institutional level, while the Bologna Follow-Up Group’s Social Dimension and Lifelong Learning Working Group develops national-level strategies and indicators for the 2020-30 period.

Measuring progression

To give you an idea of the topics addressed in the guidelines, one of the key measures for social inclusion is the progression of under-represented groups moving through the higher education pipeline (access, progress and success).

At the same time, ideas on who should be considered under-represented students differ considerably across countries. Some countries focus on low socio-economic status, while others prioritise first-generation students. Even when two countries select the same group, their definitions may rely on different assumptions.

This makes international comparison difficult and potentially misleading (for example, first-generation students might be classified based on degrees obtained by their parents or siblings rather than attendance at a higher education institution).

Likewise, the groups used as a reference for the denominators of under-represented groups may play a major role in the interpretation of indicators. For example, the same under-represented group may be measured against a particular cohort, a regional composition of the population or a field-weighted composition at the national level, yielding three different results.

In short, we need to talk about social inclusion indicators in higher education institutions in order to build a more robust system of measurement and comparison and drive progress. Everyone’s input is welcome and crucial.

Frans Kaiser and Anete Veidemane are researchers at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and are part of the U-Multirank project team. If you would like to learn more about guidelines and provide feedback, please contact Frans Kaiser ( or Anete Veidemane ( Click here for the guidelines.

The interactive webinar on the future of social inclusion indicators takes place on 17 January at 4pm. The panellists are Ninoslav Šcukanec Schmidt, co-chair of the Bologna Follow-up Group’s Working Group on Social Dimension, and Horia Onita, vice president of the European Students’ Union. Both have been actively engaged in the Bologna Follow-up Group’s Working Group on the Social Dimension and Lifelong Learning to develop country-level recommendations for social inclusion policies and indicators.
Click here to register.