Access to higher education is becoming "access by ability to pay" throughout western, central and eastern Europe, according to a study of under-representation in European higher education.
"Other European surveys of access tend to focus on the positive - those who are participating in higher education," says Maggie Woodrow of the University of North London, and one of the authors. "By contrast, the focus of these surveys is on those who are not particpating and why they are not and whether they should and how they can."
A summary was given last week at a conference organised by the University of North London, the Council of Europe and the European Access Network, at New Hall College, Cambridge.
In a paper which focussed on gender, ethnic origin, disability and socio-economic status, Dr Woodrow and co-author David Crosier outlined data from two surveys, one of central and eastern Europe and one of western Europe. The studies were undertaken in 1994/95 as part of the Council of Europe's Access to Higher Education in Europe Project and covered Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia in the Central and Eastern Europe and Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the UK in Western Europe.
On gender, the researchers found that data on participation was nearly always available in both east and west, but was rarely analysed with a view to tackling imbalances.
Overall it found that women's participation in higher education is increasing, although at different rates in different countries. In the Czech Republic there has been only a 1 per cent increase since 1987 (now 44 per cent), while in Eastern Germany participation increased from 43.4 per cent in 1991 to 48.1 per cent in 1992.
Individual subjects continue to be very "gender marked" in both east and west. While some subjects, such as medicine are a predominantly male domain in countries such as the United Kingdom, they are predominantly female in Bulgaria, Slovenia and others. But in the countries where medicine is a female subject, it lacks prestige and is poorly paid.
Most countries identified the lack of women in science and technology as a problem, and even where women's participation equalled that of men - such as in the Russian Federation - the two sexes are not treated equally.
The surveys also looked at the gender balance among teaching staff. In the Netherlands only 4 per cent are female, but in Slovenia 20 per cent. In Switzerland, the University of Geneva appointed a female professor in the French department in 1993. The decision provoked petitions from the all-male teaching staff and threats of industrial action. The study noted that Geneva is regarded as the most progressive university in the country.
In almost every country studied in central and eastern Europe, cr che provision is provided as of right, either by the state or the universities themselves. The study concludes: "Such provision has obvious resource implications and priorities have to be decided. However, the fundamental requirement is not finance but the acknowledgement that women, including those with children, should have equal access to higher education."
Gathering information on participation by ethnic group proved difficult because perceptions of ethnicity differed widely both between and within different countries. Of the 16 countries studied only the Netherlands, the UK and the Russian Federation had any national system of monitoring in place.
In many central and eastern European countries classification by ethnic group has seldom in the past been undertaken in the interests of those who find themselves in a minority. "For several states, the close proximity of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia to the north, or the spread of Islamic fundamentalism from the south, are effective in reinforcing the view that even the process of gathering such information could be damaging to social peace and stability," the study found.
Ethnic monitoring in the UK has shown that certain groups within ethnic minorities, such as Bangladeshis and Afro-Caribbean men, are underrepresented in higher education. In the Netherlands, where the four largest cities have concentrations of more than 15 per cent of minorities, underrepresentation in higher education is reported.
In all the countries of central and eastern Europe covered in the survey, it was emphasised that there was no discrimination in higher education on ethnic grounds - but there was no way this could be proved. Initiatives to widen access of minorities were consequently rare. But in Romania the University of Bucharest runs a short-term scheme whereby students from Romany groups are accepted on to courses irrespective of entry qualifications. Monitoring has shown that these students do just as well as others after two years.
In the case of students with disabilities, underrepresentation was generally and openly acknowledged. What was missing was a conviction that anything could or should be done to improve the situation.
Only a few countries monitored such participation nationally, but all acknowledged that it was low. In some countries state intervention is designed to restrict, rather than expand, access. The Bulgarian government has issued directives to universities to exclude those with certain listed disabilities and medical conditions, mainly on grounds of unsuitability in terms of career potential.
Inadequacy of resources was always presented as the reason for inaction, yet it was often the wealthiest countries, such as Switzerland, which were the least prepared to invest resources.
Underrepresentation for reasons of socio-economic status is said to be getting worse. In Germany, in both parts of the Federal Republic, workers' children are least likely to enter higher education and in the UK about two-thirds of applicants to universities come from social classes 1 and 2.
Recent and projected financial changes in university funding in many of the countries studied affect under-represented groups in particular. In nearly all the countries studied there have been significant reductions in the number and amount of maintenance grants and/or loans for students. In Iceland, for example, state loans have been reduced and are no longer interest-free.
In central and eastern Europe the financial crisis is acute, with serious book famines and reports from staff, for example in Moscow, that as there is no certainty they will be paid for their work, and that it has become "a kind of hobby".
Overall, the picture presented from the report was not an encouraging one. As Dr Woodrow concluded: "The challenge for us . . . is to see how this process can be reversed - so that higher education contributes to reducing, rather than reinforcing, existing disadvantage."