Students from disadvantaged groups score significantly lower

Date: 15 May 2017

Introduction: University of Antwerp maps intake and study progress of at-risk students. Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds generally score lower than the overall student population.

The University of Antwerp has conducted large-scale research to map the intake and study progress of its disadvantaged students. It will come as no surprise that the results confirm existing findings. Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds generally score lower than the overall student population. On the positive side, the university can eliminate some of the obstacles itself, something which Rector Van Goethem has committed to doing in the coming years. Students have also given positive feedback about the support projects being planned.

Working towards more diversity in the lecture halls is one of the spearheads in the policy vision of Herman Van Goethem, rector of the University of Antwerp. Currently, around 10% of all students at Antwerp’s university come from ethnic minority backgrounds, yet this demographic accounts for about 45% of the city’s population. In the age group of 0 to 5-year-olds, who could potentially enter higher education by 2030, 71.6% have international roots. The university is therefore facing a huge challenge.

The intake of disadvantaged groups is limited, but the same can be said of their study progress and graduation chances. This poses a problem in the long term, as research has demonstrated that there is a proportionate relationship between educational attainment levels and quality of life. Unskilled workers run a substantially greater risk of being unemployed (for longer), falling ill, having a shorter life expectancy, falling below the poverty line and so on. This does not benefit society as a whole.

The Centre for Migration and Intercultural Studies (CeMIS), which is affiliated with the University of Antwerp, used a large-scale study to gain insights into the study progress of disadvantaged groups at Antwerp’s university. More than 1500 students participated in the survey, with 254 of the students coming from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Multiple factors

“In terms of educational success, we noted that four categories of disadvantaged groups score significantly lower”, researcher David Corradi explains. “These students come from ethnic minority backgrounds, speak foreign languages at home, have mothers with a low educational level and live in financially precarious situations.”

- On average, students from ethnic minority backgrounds are 21% less successful (ratio of earned vs. used credits) compared with students from non-ethnic minority backgrounds.

- Students who speak another language at home score 25% lower than students who speak Dutch at home.

- Students whose mother does not have a secondary school diploma score 11% lower than students whose mothers have at least a secondary school diploma.

- While students with a grant tend to score lower than their non-grant-receiving counterparts, their scores are sufficiently high on average not to require an adapted study pathway.

“Other factors also influence educational success”, says Corradi. “These include the pressure to perform well, whether the student experiences discrimination, and the university’s diversity climate. An important conclusion is that these youngsters continue to encounter obstacles throughout their entire educational careers, at the structural, interpersonal and social levels.”

Eliminate obstacles

While the figures are anything but positive, the researchers feel that the university may be able to eliminate several obstacles. Corradi: “An intake programme, with summer schools and faculty-specific preparatory courses, could help. The further development of ongoing projects such as Mentoraat Plus and Mentoraat op Maat, which provide intensive support to students, would also be useful. The coaching must be tailored to the students, and we must pay attention to problems including those that are often socioeconomic in nature.”

International examples also highlight the positive impact of buddy projects and mentoring. A student-oriented approach is also a positive factor, including transparent evaluation methods, opportunities for reflection with lecturers and blended learning, for example. In this method, the traditional lecture is recorded and posted online.

It is vital that students support and request these support measures. They have indicated that they feel this type of support has a positive impact. At the same time, creating a positive climate that makes young people feel they have a right to a place in higher education is equally crucial.

“In the near future, the City of Antwerp especially will be confronted with an ethnically diverse student population”, Corradi concludes. “Antwerp and the University of Antwerp are in pole position to ensure more widespread participation in higher education and inspire organisations throughout Flanders.”

New initiatives

“We are extremely aware of these challenges”, says Rector Van Goethem. “We have always made a sustained effort to promote the intake, progression and graduation of students from these disadvantaged groups. But we know that we must make a more sustained effort, which is why we will invest in projects such as Tutoraat, Klimop, Monitoraat op Maat and Mentoraat Plus as well as developing new initiatives like diversity coordinators and training programmes for the University of Antwerp’s employees.”

The university will also work closely with the university colleges and wants to call in external expertise, for example from the Netherlands, to implement best practices. “If we want to take the lead in Flanders, however, we must insist that the government sets aside far more resources to tackle Antwerp’s specific educational challenges”, Van Goethem concludes.