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Europe tackles social exclusion to Higher Education

Europe is determined to tackle social exclusion in higher education – with a target of reducing the number of people with just basic skills to 15% by 2020, writes Nic Mitchell.

That was the pledge from Julie Anderson, policy officer at the European Commission, speaking at a conference to mark the first World Access to Higher Education Day, or WAHED, on 28 November.

It sets a big challenge for those working in marketing and communications as well as university recruitment & admissions over the next few years.

For those driving the World Access Day initiative believe higher education leaders and policy-makers have been complacent for too long and need to accept they have problems with equity in their higher education systems and should put national strategies in place to deal with these inequities.

Julie Anderson, European Commission policy officer

According to Julie Anderson: “The catalyst for a new focus on education and social inclusion was the first attack in Paris in 2015 by people who were born and grew up as French citizens, which led to an important conference by Heads of State in Gothenburg, Sweden that moved the focus from economic policy to inclusion and led to what we know call the European Education Area.”

Inequality passed on

Speaking at the inaugural WAHED conference at Aston University, Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Anderson said: “Europe faces a number of challenges, and in education as a whole we have continued inequality that is passed from one generation to the next.”

She backed this up by highlighting that young people with at least one parent with a degree were nearly five more likely to access HE than those without a graduate as a parent.

Figures vary between (EU) member states – and while HE participation rates overall have almost reached 40% across the European Union, access to university education remains a barrier to students from lower-income backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups. 

The European Commission wants to overcome social exclusion partly through renewed efforts to boost lifelong learning, which has stubbornly remained at around the 10% level for too long, explained Anderson, who added: “We want 15% taking part in lifelong learning by 2020.”

She acknowledged that breaking down barriers to higher education would mean “more diversity in the classroom”, with a wider range of ages and backgrounds as well as students with different needs. “One of the things we are looking at is support for academic staff if they are no longer (just) teaching to uniformed 18-year-olds and need to make education more acceptable to a wider range of students.”

Citizenship and participation were other key issues for European policy makers. The 2014 European Parliament elections exposed a lack of interest in European politics – with just 28% of 18-24 year-olds voting.

“Intervention can make a difference,” said Anderson.  

Broaden Erasmus+ participation

One of the direct actions the European Commission can take is broadening the range of people from different backgrounds taking part in study abroad opportunities and student exchanges.

Only 11.5% of students from under-represented groups participate in Erasmus+ mobility schemes. “That is double what it used to be, but is still very low,” said Anderson.

“We are looking in the next Erasmus programme at more top-up grants and also looking at blended mobility, where you can do more online and where your geographical mobility is slightly less,” explained Anderson, who accepted that studying or working abroad for a semester or longer was not an option for many of the more disadvantaged students.

“By 2025 we plan to have a European Education Area in which learning and research are not hampered by borders and where more and more people are taking part in mobility.”

Initiatives already underway include the development of the Student Card to improve access to mobility and make it more user-friendly.

“We are also developing European universities, which will partnerships of 4 or 5 institutions. A key principle of those will be inclusion and we want to focus on geographical inclusion as well as social inclusion,” she said.

Anderson said the emphasis in the future will be on more digital learning and mutual recognition of qualifications and recognising prior learning and not just formal learning.

“On social inclusion, universities can help with cultural integration and here German universities are leading the way with recognition of qualifications for refugees.

“Erasmus + project is also developing a tool kit for the five top sending countries – Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Libya – to help recognition authorities throughout Europe learn about the qualifications and recognise them and cut down delays preventing people from getting into HE,” said Anderson.

  • At the launch conference for World Access to Higher Education Day, the organiser of the event, Dr Graeme Atherton praised the support received from the Austrian Federal Minister for Education, Science and Research Heinz Faßmann. He was the only government minister to pledge support for WAHED. In an email, Faßmann said: “I am convinced that equal opportunities in education build one important column for a successful educational system. Therefore, we approved the national strategy on the social dimension in higher education in 2017 by putting a special focus on equal access opportunities to higher education for students from all backgrounds. The WAHED initiative once more emphasizes the global importance of this topic.”


  • The results of the first survey comparing higher education equity policies in 71 countries was released at the launch event. It showed a number of countries paying only “lip service” to the equity agenda. 


  • The report by global tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi said only 6 higher education systems stood out in respect to policy commitments to providing equal opportunities to access and success in higher education – Australia, Cuba, England, Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland. A larger group of countries – including Austria, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Spain and Wales – fell into the next category, meaning they had formulated an equity promotion strategy and put in place aligned policies, programmes and interventions to implement the strategy. 


  • Dr Atherton who organised the launch conference, said: “The first WAHED has been a great success with over 100 organisations from 30 countries involved. Our UK conference in Birmingham highlighted the case for global collaboration in this area and we look forward to really pushing for concrete changes in policy and practice in 2019 in the run up to the second WAHED. With European HE we would like to see far more European countries accept they have problems with equity in their higher education systems and put national strategies in place to deal with these inequities.”

+ Also see:

‘Most countries failing to tackle unequal access to HE’, University World News, 28 November 2018 

+ ‘More to widening access to HE than just financial aid’, University World News, 1 December 2018

+ ‘Lessons from the first World Access to HE Day’,, 5 December 2018