Leaving no one behind in Higher Education

Op-ed by Sandra Nuždić, Office Manager and Student Counsellor at the Office for Students with Disabilities, University of Rijeka, and participant in the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education in Edinburgh, UK, from 24–27 November 2019

ASEFEdu (Editor)
Dec 13, 2019 · 5 min read
Sandra Nuždić at the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education in Edinburgh, UK

With the World Access to Higher Education Day behind us, all higher education professionals should stop and think how their universities are addressing access and equity issues and what else has to be done to improve the situation in this regard. Reading about examples of good practice from across Europe in European University Association’s publication on universities’ strategies and approaches towards diversity, equity and inclusion (Claeys-Kulik & Jørgensen, 2018), I cannot help but think we are missing the bigger picture — a fully inclusive approach. I will focus more on the European and especially the Croatian context as I am most familiar with them.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are often used interchangeably so I will not dwell too much on the definitions, just to say that all three terms acknowledge differences in students which can play a part when it comes to access and success in higher education. Students who have a hard time accessing higher education or need additional support during their studies are called the “under-represented groups” (Drusany et al, 2012). The Croatian National Task Force for Improving the Social Dimension of Higher Education (2016) identified as many as 16 under-represented and vulnerable groups in higher education in Croatia. As a result of the work of the Task Force, the Croatian government has adopted a National Plan to improve the social dimension of higher education in Croatia (by 2021), with activities and measures to address all of them, but with specific guidelines for students with disabilities. Furthermore, there are great examples of work done at European universities with refugees (e.g. Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Germany), gender equality (University of Strasbourg, France), LGBTQ (e.g. Technical University of Delft, Netherlands) or disability (University of Lille, France or Open University of Catalunya, Spain)[1].

However, in order to address access and equity issues we need to think about ALL of the disadvantaged groups and the inequalities they face. All cohorts of students at the largest university in Croatia — the University of Zagreb reported that they need (1) counselling (in e.g. learning strategies, time management or with personal issues), (2) support to help them with their studies and ensure their success (passing their exams but especially financial support) and (3) easier employment after university (Drusany et al, 2012). Moreover, The World Bank’s review of literature on outreach and financial aid (Herbault & Geven, 2019) identified four barriers that prevent disadvantaged students from succeeding in higher education: (1) financial barriers, (2) lack of academic preparation, (3) lack of information and (4) behavioural barriers. Likewise, Tinto (1993) identified that (1) academic difficulties, (2) inability to resolve their educational and occupational goals and (3) failure to become and remain incorporated in the intellectual and social life of the institution are responsible for student departure from higher education.

My experience working at the University Counselling Centre of University of Rijeka, specifically within Disability Services, has shown me that a lot of students struggle with the same issues as for example students with disabilities. As we focus only on one group of disadvantaged students, a lot of other students end up left behind. And we just cannot work on inclusion by excluding students that need our support. Thus, I believe if we focus on the identified barriers instead of identified groups we will start supporting ALL students experiencing difficulties in higher education.

As “getting in is only half of the battle”, we need to create inclusive pedagogies, i.e. a learning environment that caters to different learners. I consider that is a key way to support students in completing their higher education. In fact, more universities are attempting to move a focus from a specific issue towards a more comprehensive approach developing an overarching diversity management strategy like the Coventry University, UK (Claeys-Kulik & Jørgensen, 2018, pp. 45–50) — where everybody feels “equally welcome and able to achieve their full potential”, i.e. ALL STUDENTS receive adequate and equitable support (i.e. “tailored support”) while they are at university. In the words of Caroline Wilson from Coventry University, “academic and professional staff and accompanying systems and processes will all need to be clearly inclusive, promoting equity of opportunity such that no student is disadvantaged once they are in higher education”, and no one is left behind.


Claeys-Kulik, A. & Jørgensen, T. (2018). Universities’ Strategies and Approaches towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Examples from across Europe. Brussels, Belgium: European University Association. Retreived from URL: https://eua.eu/downloads/publications/universities-39-strategies-and-approaches-towards-diversity-equity-and-inclusion.pdf

Claeys-Kulik, A., Jørgensen, T. & Stöber, H. (2019). Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in European Higher Education Institutions: Results from the INVITED project. Brussels, Belgium: European University Association. Retrieved from URL: https://eua.eu/downloads/publications/web_diversity%20equity%20and%20inclusion%20in%20european%20higher%20education%20institutions.pdf

Drusany, D., Ajduković, M., Divjak, B., Jokić-Begić, N, Kranželić, V. & Rimac, I. (2012). Istraživanje procjene potreba studenata za podrškom tijekom studija — izvješće za Senat Sveučilišta u Zagrebu. Zagreb: Sveučilište u Zagrebu.

Herbault, E. & Geven, K.M. (2019). What Works to Reduce Inequalities in Higher Education? A Systematic Review of the (Quasi-)Experimental Literature on Outreach and Financial Aid. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group. Retrieved from URL: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/650601554221255443/What-Works-to-Reduce-Inequalities-in-Higher-Education-A-Systematic-Review-of-the-Quasi-Experimental-Literature-on-Outreach-and-Financial-Aid

Kiš-Glavaš, L. (2016). Smjernice za unapređenje sustava potpore studentima s invaliditetom u visokom obrazovanju u Republici Hrvatskoj. Zagreb: Nacionalna skupina za unaprjeđenje socijalne dimenzije visokog obrazovanja. Retrieved from URL: https://mzo.gov.hr/UserDocsImages//dokumenti/Obrazovanje/VisokoObrazovanje/RazvojVisokogObrazovanja//Smjernice%20za%20unapre%C4%91enje%20sustava%20potpore%20studentima%20s%20invaliditetom%20u%20visokom%20obrazovanju%20u%20Republici%20Hrvatskoj.pdf

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vlada Republike Hrvatske (2018). Nacionalni plan za unaprjeđenje socijalne dimenzije visokog obrazovanja u Republici Hrvatskoj 2019. — 2021. Zagreb: Vlada Republike Hrvatske. Retrieved from URL: https://mzo.gov.hr/UserDocsImages//dokumenti/Obrazovanje/VisokoObrazovanje/RazvojVisokogObrazovanja//Nacionalni%20plan%20za%20unaprje%C4%91enje%20socijalne%20dimenzije%20visokog%20obrazovanja%20u%20Republici%20Hrvatskoj%202019.%20-%202021..pdf

[1] For each of the examples please refer to the EUA’s publication „Universities’ Strategies and Approaches towards Divesity, Equity and Inclusion“ (Claeys-Kulik & Jørgensen, 2018).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely by the author(s) and do not represent that of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF)​.

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