Accessibility Tools

Students from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds still struggle to participate in higher education. Covid-19 has made inclusion even more difficult. EUA expert Luisa Bunescu discusses three solutions to this challenge, including the need for a universal design for learning that gives all students equal opportunities to succeed.

Higher education in Europe still falls short of being inclusive and equitable. Although there is a high-level commitment to correct this, most recently through the principles and guidelines to strengthen the social dimension under the Bologna Process, for students from disadvantaged, under-represented or marginalised backgrounds, participation in higher education remains a struggle caused by limited opportunities and insufficient support.

One important reason for this is the lack of a concerted and holistic approach to admissions, to participation in learning and teaching processes and assessment, and more generally, to academic and non-academic support made available to learners.

While national authorities and universities may have increased financial support for students (for instance, through scholarships and tuition fee waivers), inclusion and equity have not been systematically addressed through learning and teaching practices.

There seems to be a lack of understanding that curriculum design and the way academics teach are also of critical importance for any reform intended to open up universities to learners from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds.

Inclusion is not an island

To address this gap, the European University Association (EUA) has made inclusion and equity in higher education a topic for its learning and teaching thematic peer groups. In parallel, the association tackled the issue through studies and various initiatives, including the EFFECT project. Through this work, three strong conclusions are evident.

First, conveying inclusion and equity can be sustainable only if the practice becomes embedded in an institutional approach and benefits from the support of all university stakeholders.

While special roles (such as ‘diversity officer’) and units (such as an ‘accessibility unit’) have been set up in an increasing number of universities as structures intended to address equity and inclusion, there is the risk that once a specific person or office has been appointed to the matter, the other members of the institutional community will lose interest and concern.

This raises the question of how much universities isolate inclusion and equity within specific offices. The EUA’s 2020 thematic peer group on approaches in learning and teaching to promote equity and inclusion made the point that inclusion is not an island, and initiatives geared towards it need to be embedded into the entire learning and teaching process and in the institutional strategy.

Teacher training on inclusion

Second, teaching staff need support and tools to know how to adapt their practice and advance an inclusivity agenda in the classroom. Such support should be offered through continuing professional development – meaning teacher training – on inclusion and equity skills.

Interesting, however, is that, while the majority of higher education institutions agree on the increasing importance of inclusion in higher education, they seem to not prioritise this as a theme for the continuing professional development of their teaching staff.

This leaves the question of how well teachers across universities in Europe are equipped to address inclusion and equity through their teaching practice. Were they given the opportunity to follow specialised training on this topic or to engage in meaningful conversations?

The role of leaders

Third, institutional leadership plays a critical role in advancing an inclusivity agenda. Not only is the support of the executive leadership crucial in terms of strategy development, but it is also vital in allocating sufficient resources that support sustainable initiatives around the topic.

Without the support of institutional leadership and without a coherent institutional policy on inclusion and equity, there might be small-scale ongoing activities, but they are often disconnected and usually unsustainable over a long period of time.

Universal design for learning

While there is no silver bullet to foster inclusion and equity, several methods in learning and teaching, such as team-based and problem-based learning, have proven their added-value in various contexts.

For universities, this means that more conversations need to take place around a “universal design for learning”, which, perhaps counterintuitively, does not mean to find a universally applicable method to teach everyone, but on the contrary, to identify diverse learning and teaching methods that give all students equal opportunities to succeed.

The urgency to have such conversations has been further amplified by COVID-19, which far from being the great equaliser, has affected in particular those students who already before the pandemic struggled to access and participate in higher education.


This article was originally published by University World News on 15 February 2021.


Luisa Bunescu
European University Association

Luisa Bunescu is Policy Analyst in the EUA Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development Unit. She joined the Association in 2016, initially as Policy and Project Officer in the Higher Education Policy Unit.

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