Student ethnicity and class data ‘hardly monitored’ in Europe

With no good data, continental European universities cannot monitor if widening access policies are working

August 30, 2019
Source: Getty

European countries are failing to monitor the ethnic and socioeconomic background of university students, making it almost impossible to tell whether widening access measures are actually working, according to a major new report from the European Commission.

Ethnic and migration background – whether or not a student is from a family of immigrants – is “hardly monitored”, the report warns. Instead, “data mostly distinguish between national and international students”, it says.

“This distinction does not sufficiently refer to the ethnical background,” it warns.

In addition, “countries rarely collect information on students’ social background”, except for the UK and Sweden, the report adds.

Collecting such data was the “first step”, said Mabel Sánchez Barrioluengo, a researcher of the economics of higher education at the University of Manchester, and one of the report’s authors. “Without specific evaluation mechanisms, it’s hard to understand the efficacy of the policy,” she said.

In Austria, for example, there were “no data available that would allow comparing the composition of the student body with the overall composition of society”, the report, Social Inclusion Policies in Higher Education: Evidence from the EU, says.

“Some reports state that there would be a high degree of similarity between both, but there is no evidence provided for this statement,” it finds.

The Eurostudent database, which brings together national data, only has information on students’ “migration” background, determined by whether they and their parents were born abroad, but not ethnicity, Dr Sánchez Barrioluengo pointed out.

In a number of countries there were “political and cultural sensitivities” over collecting ethnic data, she said. “A detailed follow-up of individual students and their study progress is not allowed in some countries,” such as Germany, according to the report.

The lack of data about students reflects wider differences in approach between the US and UK, and continental Europe. In France, for example, surveying people about their ethnic or religious identity is forbidden by law. In Germany, the focus is on nationality or parental nationality, rather than ethnicity.

There were fears in Europe that making too much data available could lead to students being identified, Dr Sánchez Barrioluengo said, while it was also expensive to collect and process such information.

It could be that national governments collected data privately, she acknowledged, but “we cannot find it, so it means it’s not publicly available”.

There were exceptions, however. “The UK has been one of the leading countries in this type of data collection about ethnicity,” she said, and hoped that other countries would follow its example. “The idea is that we are able to see what is available in different countries; countries can learn from each other,” she said.

But even in the UK it was hard to define which ethnic categories to use: the NHS and universities used different systems, meaning that comparable pan-European information would be tricky to collate, she said.

And the right measures of social class “have to be defined”, the report cautions. “Class schemes based on the occupational and educational status of parents, ie, mostly of the father, are not a valid predictor for a deprived status of the students. This is to some extent related to an upscaling of professions that were traditionally understood as indicators of low class,” it says.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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