Last week, I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the European Access Network’s annual conference held at the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The EAN is a non-governmental organization with the singular mission of widening participation in higher education for those who are currently underrepresented. The Network is made up of institutional and jurisdictional representatives from Europe, North America and several other parts of the world who either research, fund or work directly on access initiatives. This year’s conference, entitled ‘Student Diversity in Higher Education: Conflicting Realities,’ dealt with many facets of the global access issue, with a variety of perspectives on closing participation gaps shared amongst the delegates. The conference offered me some key insights on OUSA’s work on access over the past few years through Breaking Barriers and our annual Blue Chair Campaign.
There were a number of memorable conference sessions for me. One of the first sessions was facilitated by a Vice-Chancellor in the United Kingdom on the regressive changes to the country’s tuition and financial aid policies. Next up was a session on tremendous progress that some of California’s prestigious 4-year universities have made in supporting transfer students from community colleges, both in terms growing the number of transfer students and also in their academic success rates, which have surpassed non-transfer students in many cases. I also had the pleasure of speaking at length with Dr. Brenda Dann-Messier, the Assistant Secretary to the US Department of Education in the Obama administration, on the supports that underrepresented students need in secondary schools and their new ‘cradle to career’ strategy. Finally, the President of the Lumina Foundation for Education in the US delivered an inspiring call to action to all countries to redouble efforts to protect and enhance accessibility of higher education as public budgets around the world tighten.
While the conference proceedings itself were invaluable, the most exciting part of the week was the global student forum. In attendance were representatives from the United States Student Association and the European Students’ Union, in addition to students from underrepresented groups from around the world ranging from Belgium to Suriname. Hearing their stories was truly a moving and motivating experience. Students from across the world shared their stories and experiences accessing higher education. One woman from Tanzania was discouraged from attending post-secondary due to her gender and was able to change her life when she accessed a computer –and information on scholarships – for the first time. A man from inner city St. Louis lived on the streets for years but attended higher education after promising his dying grandfather that he would go back to university as a mature student. Another brilliant young man from Toronto has been on his own since age 15 and is still finishing his high school diploma because he had to take time off school to work and support himself, but plans to study engineering at the University of Toronto as soon as he can.
While the unique challenges and perspectives from each student and country were interesting, I was struck most by the similarity of student experiences and challenges with accessing education are worldwide. Students from across the world spoke of the need to feel supported early on in school; they spoke of the need for clear information on costs and benefits; they spoke of the need to have an understandable and accessible financial aid system; they spoke of the need for a flexible education system that allows students to change their path; they spoke of the challenges that first generation students face the need for role models and additional encouragement. Ultimately, they all spoke of the need for a coordinated and holistic approach to access that leaves no student behind.
It can be easy to let conversation on accessibility focus on the numbers and the policy changes that are needed, rather than on the students themselves. I am walking away from this forum with a renewed respect for letting individual students’ stories shine through.
I also obtained an appreciation of where Canada and Ontario stand in a global perspective. Many of the conference’s delegates spoke admiringly of Canada’s public education system and high attainment rate. Hearing stories of the recruitment practices of degree mills and two-tiered primary school systems made me reflect on the somewhat advantageous position that Ontarians are in. That notwithstanding, it was also obvious that we are woefully behind in other areas. Many other jurisdictions utilize student mobility between education pathways through credit transfer, bridging programs and open access initiatives to enhance university participation for those without the necessary entrance requirements – something that Ontario has talked about for a long time, but made relatively little progress on. There are also countless examples of innovative community- and school-based programs designed to influence underrepresented students’ course selection and performance. As Ontario embarks on designing new programming to help with the transition from secondary to post-secondary education, we would be wise to look to our neighbouring jurisdictions for many promising best practices.
I want to thank the European Access Network for inviting and bringing OUSA to a wonderful forum and allowing us to participate so fully. This has been a fantastic opportunity for OUSA and I can’t wait to share all that I’ve learned back here in Ontario. The ability to interact with other student organizations was also a valuable opportunity to share perspectives and information – something that we can hopefully continue to do more of as the EAN builds a more formal student network. In particular, as student organizations become more organized in places like Asia and Africa, it will be an exciting opportunity to work together and share best practices to influence public policy and debate around the world.
Ontario has a lot to be proud of, but closing participation gaps and supporting all students’ pursuit of higher education is going to require us to take our efforts at home to the next level. Participating in forums like the EAN ensures that a global perspective informs these efforts as we all work to enhance equality through higher education.