Widening participation in higher education

Problem statement

Increased higher education attainment rates are vital if Member States are to achieve higher employment levels, productivity and growth. In contrast with their low-skilled peers, higher education graduates in Europe have consistently fared better even in the most crisis-hit economies, with lower rates of unemployment across the continent [1]. Besides economic prosperity higher education has the potential to contribute also to social development by engaging and empowering people. In the wake of the economic crisis, with widening levels of inequality and a sharp rise in youth unemployment, the importance of higher education as a vehicle for fostering social mobility and cohesion is increasingly acknowledged. In order to improve attainment levels, Member States need to increase participation in higher education from all social groups, including the most disadvantaged.

Implications for education

The expansion of higher education has not been sufficient to eliminate unequal rates of participation by different social groups [1] [2]. Recent years have seen growth in a number of strategies designed to widen participation in the higher education system as a whole and also within the most prestigious institutions [3]. However, these strategies have only been partially successful. Disadvantaged and non-traditional students in terms of age, social and ethnic background and part-time status continue to be under-represented, particularly at the more prestigious institutions and fields of study [4]. Similarly, there appear to be significant barriers for those seeking to pursue higher education part-time. Adult students in full or part-time employment receive little support from their employers in terms of funding, sponsorship or time off to study [5]. Universities also gear most of their activities to young full-time students [3]. Even where provision for the needs of mature learners is available, it operates at the margin of university activities, carries low status and has fewer resources invested in it. Currently around 30 % of students across the EU drop out before they complete their degree [6]. Students from a lower socioeconomic background are particularly at risk of dropping out [7]. Unless national governments and institutions prioritize widening access initiatives, there is a danger that the progress towards greater social inclusion will be reversed.


Different institutional factors, which appear to be influential with regard to participation of disadvantaged social groups have been identified [8] [9]. These are: flexible or open admission for those without traditional entry qualifications; the availability of modes of study that accommodate the particular needs of non-traditional learners, especially the extent of distance learning and part-time studies, modular courses, policies for assessment of prior learning; the extent of institutional flexibility with regard to the organisation of studies, contents or curricula and programmes; the availability of short courses or non-credit programmes that serve as gateway activities to engaging disadvantaged learners; financial and other support; different loan schemes modes, e.g. making repayment conditional on higher income after completion of studies [10] [11] [12].

[1] OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2014. doi:10.1787/eag-2014-en.

[2] Riddell, S.; Weedon, E., ‘European higher education, the inclusion of students from Under-represented groups and the Bologna Process’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(1), 2014, pp. 26-44.

[3] Downes, P., ‘Access to Education in Europe: A Framework and Agenda for System Change’, Lifelong Learning Book Series 21, Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, Springer Verlag, 2014. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-8795-6.

[4] Boliver, V., ‘How fair is access to more prestigious UK universities?’, The British Journal of Sociology, 64(2), 2013, pp. 344–364.

[5] Saar, E.; Vöörmann, R.; Lang, A., ‘Employers’ support for adult higher education students in liberal post-socialist contexts’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(5), 2014, pp. 587-606.

[6] OECD, Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2013. doi:10.1787/eag-2013-en.

[7] Quinn, J., Drop-out and Completion in Higher Education in Europe among students from under-represented groups, Report for the European Commission by the Network of Experts in Social aspects of Education and Training (NESET), 2013. PDF file

[8] Saar, E.; Täht, K.; Roosalu, T., ‘Institutional barriers for adults’ participation in higher education in thirteen European countries’, Higher Education, 68(5), 2014, pp. 691-710.

[9] Slowey, M.; Schuetze, H. G., (eds), Global perspectives on higher education and lifelong learners, Routledge, London, 2012.

[10] Broek, S.; Hake, B.J., ‘Increasing participation of adults in higher education: factors for successful policies’, International Journal of Lifelong Learning, 31(4), 2012, pp. 397-417.

[11] European Commission; EACEA; Eurydice, Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Access, Retention and Employability 2014, Eurydice Report, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2014. PDF file

[12] European Commission; EACEA; Eurydice, National Student Fee and Support Systems in European Higher Education 2014/2015, Eurydice Report, 2015. PDF file