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“Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Access, Retention and Employability” is the newly published Eurydice report, produced to support the EU Commission's modernisation agenda for higher education. It looks into government policies and institutional practices around students’ experiences in higher education in 36 education systems (all EU member states apart from Luxembourg and the Netherlands, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Norway and Turkey), using as the sources the Eurydice national units, quality assurance agencies in 12 countries, and site visits to higher education institutions in 8.
The study focuses on three stages of students’ experiences: access to higher education, progression through the study programme and transition from higher education to the labour market. Its aim is to examine how higher education institutions are widening access to higher education, what they are doing to increase the number of graduates, and how they are supporting their employment.
The overall findings show that universities are not sufficiently using the information they have about their students to improve the quality of their work and the opportunities for students.
When it comes to the question of access, it appears that a lot of work is ahead to go beyond policies and enhance the social dimension of higher education in practice. Very few countries (only 9) have specifically defined attainment targets for diverse groups of students; migrant status data are obtained in only 13 education systems and 8 systems collect data on ethnicity of students and staff. Sometimes even when data exists, it is not necessarily used and analysed: 19 systems (among them those having enough information) could not report on the longitudinal changes in student composition and characteristics.
One of the most surprising findings is that a significant number of countries do not systematically calculate completion and/or drop-out rates. Even in countries with relevant policies in place, there is not enough data to analyse their impact, or even if there is data on completion rates, there is no differentiation by student profiles. Moreover, certain terms require clearer definitions – for example, in some countries completion rates refer to the percentage of graduates out of total enrolment, while in some only the final year cohort is taken as the baseline. There are not many incentives to increase completion rates either on government or institutional level. The report reveals that student services at universities are rarely tailored to different student needs; therefore, their existence may not necessarily imply wider access or higher completion rates.
Employability is a high priority in higher education policy while practices differ considerably - some countries adopt employment-centred approach, measuring graduate employment rates only; others focus on competences and skills development for the labour market; some combine the two approaches. The ways countries encourage universities to improve their employability performance span from performance-based funding, to employability-related reports submitted by HEIs, to making employability info public for current and prospective students. Still, a lot of data is missing, particularly on the relations between the socio-economic background and employability of graduates. Cooperation with the business sector exists either through involving employers in certain decision-making processes at universities, or through cooperation projects, e.g. traineeships for students.
What this report shows, as Commissioner Vassiliou noted, is that: “Across Europe, we are becoming increasingly conscious that not only do we have to invest more in higher education, but we also have to invest more wisely”.
Full report (PDF)