The recommendations below should be interpreted in the context of a continent with differentiated individual higher education admission systems. They are designed to aid policy-makers in managing the tensions set out above and in creating more equitable, efficient and effective admission systems. The first six recommendations can be clearly recommended for all admission systems. It is suggested that the final three recommendations should be piloted, on the understanding that such elements of an admission system are usually more difficult to change and may be dependent on contextual factors and local conditions in the countries affected.

 

Recommendation 1 – Improve the architecture of choices provided to students

A corollary of offering additional ways into higher education is the increase in complexity (this is the case for Type 3 systems, but also a general trend in most countries). Many of the students in the focus groups are already complaining of too much information, making choice even harder. Just as schools need to improve guidance, HEIs need to improve the system-wide choice architecture they present to students.

Firstly, this is about simplifying the way choices are presented. Governments and HEIs are becoming increasingly conscious of the need to provide accurate and timely information. The case studies highlighted current efforts in this direction, with the (voluntary) Dutch ‘Study Choice Check’ and the various German study-interest tests. In the case of France’s APB system, much work has been done, but the sheer complexity and number of possible permutations which underlie the system remain a challenge for student decision-making.

The point here is not to criticise individual efforts being made to present choices to students. The issue is that the architecture of that choice is often set up in a way that is administratively convenient for HEIs rather than intuitive to students. It is recommended that this point be considered together with the task of improving information, advice and guidance as a whole.

 

Recommendation 2 – Improve the information, advice and guidance available on higher education

Evidence suggests that an improvement in information, advice and guidance would benefit higher education systems throughout Europe. The case studies in the report indicate that efforts are being made to provide more information to prospective students about individual programmes and careers. The German (Bavarian) case provides an innovative approach to this: projects in upper-secondary schools focus on the future careers of pupils and involve collaboration with HEIs and businesses. However, this is just one part of the puzzle. Students require contextual information and advice which is personalised and goes beyond their own social-proximity network. Improving information, advice and guidance will require financial investment (in nearly all case studies it appeared under-funded), and coordinated efforts that involve schools and HEIs working collectively. It should also engage students in the first year of higher education in countries where selection extends to this point. This investment should be universal, but also have a particular focus on students who are under-represented in higher education. In the absence of proper available guidance, students will fall back on family resources of cultural capital, which are not distributed equally. See Box 9.1 for further recommendations.

 

Recommendation 3 – Link admission policy to student and labour market demand

Admission policy and labour market demand are not strongly connected, and the focus group discussions with students found that one of the most stressful aspects of admission was the fear of not getting into a preferred programme. If places could be realigned more quickly, there would be fewer bottlenecks in the system and the admission process could become less high-stakes for students, i.e. most study choices would lead to personal success for students and success in the labour market.

Admission policies need to be better linked to both what students and labour markets want. There is no reason to believe that the preferences of students will necessarily match the future demands of the labour market, at the same time the labour market finds it hard to predict future skills requirements. One major element in the work of linkage is therefore to determine the graduate attributes to which most high-quality higher education programmes should lead (e.g. 21st Century Skills).

At the same time, disciplinary skills remain key. Some countries (e.g. Lithuania) are using or trialling policy instruments such as ring-fenced funding for HEIs that agree to provide additional student places focused on specific subject areas. Private HEIs can play a role in helping to expand the supply of places in particular fields, as they are able to operate more flexibly than many public HEIs. However, to ensure balance between student and labour market demand, stakeholders from both sides must be included in the development of national admission policies. These policies also need to be based on better evidence regarding patterns of student demand and how it is shaped, as well as labour market intelligence on likely future changes in employment.

 

Recommendation 4 – Incentivise Higher Education Institutions to be more inclusive

The majority of HEIs do not consider social inclusion to be a primary mission. They should be more clearly charged with a responsibility both to enable learners from under-represented backgrounds to participate in higher education and to support the successful completion of their participation. To help them discharge this responsibility, HEIs should be given strong financial incentives to enrol and graduate students from such backgrounds. As the examples from different countries show in Chapter 7, HEIs can lead outreach activities capable of better preparing learners from equity groups for higher education and can deliver second-chance routes for older learners. The United Kingdom has a universal system of equity performance agreements across its four nations, and in the last 10 years England (despite the very high cost of student tuition) has increased higher education participation amongst students from lower socio-economic groups. Other countries (such as Croatia and Austria) have included equity improvements in their target agreements, whilst Germany has offered a specific funding programme to support enrolled students in their orientation and progress.

The evidence suggests that HEIs already have within their institutions the tools to deploy resources more aggressively, in order to help such students enter and succeed. Yet in most instances, HEIs are not doing so, because they do not see this as their responsibility. These activities are however vital in helping to manage the tension between equity and efficiency described above. They can enable learners from equity groups to increase the likelihood of successfully completing higher education. Such work is not a silver-bullet solution, but combined with reforms to streaming and to the methods by which HEIs select students, these activities can contribute to making European higher education more equitable.

 

Recommendation 5 – Use Bologna tools to ease transition through higher education

Students fear making mistakes in choosing a HEI and a study programme and having to incur the time and cost of re-starting a different programme from the beginning. Reducing the consequences of mistakes would take much of the pressure off the experience for students. This could be done by postponing the requirement on students to choose specific programmes for a semester or a year into their higher education, or by making credits easier to transfer from one programme to another. The Bologna structure, with shorter study programmes (including the growing short-cycle sector) and the European Credit Transfer System both offer potential here. More programmes should make use of these to reduce the disadvantages of changing courses during the first year of study.

 

Recommendation 6 – Restructure selection processes during secondary education level

In order to create the conditions for a more equitable higher education system, streaming into programmes not leading to higher education should be left as late as possible (as is found in Types 2 and 3). Systems where streaming occurs at an early age (especially Type 1) appear to embed social inequality into higher education entry and, as students get older, make further policy interventions related to equity harder to deliver.

Admission systems heavily reliant on selectivity and streaming during the transition from primary to secondary education and within secondary education (Types 1 and 3 in the current typology) could gradually reduce the degree of selectivity and monitor their results. They could allow more students to pass through into upper-secondary education and the academic stream; alternatively, they could recalibrate higher education-facing exit examinations (like the German Abitur or the Italian Maturita) so that more students gain the appropriate qualification to enter higher education and / or certain study programmes.

 

Recommendation 7 – Introduce pilot projects to reduce pressure during the final year of secondary school

The tension between the needs of the schooling system and those of higher education described above is a difficult challenge to resolve, but reform is required to try and separate out the taking of examinations from the selection of a programme of higher education. For increasing numbers of Europe’s young people, major life events are being compressed into a very short period of time at the end of upper-secondary level. Such events could be spaced out more. One option would be to move final exams to an earlier point in the last upper-secondary year. This might mean that systems would need to switch away from exams intended to encapsulate an entire upper-secondary education in favour of something which was at least partially psychometric in nature, such as the Swedish SAT. This might be challenging, but the positive resulting effect might be to make the entire curriculum less exam-focused. Another option would be to move higher education applications to an earlier point in the final year (which is essentially what is currently being trialled in the Netherlands). However, it is recognised here that these changes are ambitious and could not in themselves guarantee better outcomes. Any changes must be accompanied by improvements in information, advice and guidance such as those recommended above. The key thing here is to ensure that students think about higher education choice much earlier than in the final year of secondary schooling. This last year is then the culmination of a process, not the whole decision-making period. However, for this to happen it is essential that information, advice and guidance be vastly improved.

 

Recommendation 8 – Permit HEIs to experiment with different methods of identifying student potential

HEIs do want greater autonomy in admissions (i.e. those in Types 1 and 3), but nevertheless they view this cautiously given the costs involved. However, they also want, as students do, a better match of applicants with the programmes they offer. If systems are going to expand equitably and efficiently, they need to manage the tension between objectivity and fairness. Hence, while accepting the caution above, greater autonomy needs to be given to HEIs to select their students, although this increased freedom needs to be controlled through a framework that enhances rather than constrains equitable admissions. Such autonomy might involve more use of interviews and aptitude testing.

 

Recommendation 9 – Prioritise joint working across schooling and higher education

In recognising the holistic nature of higher education admission systems, it is essential to build on collaborative work between schools, HEIs and policymakers who focus on schools and higher education. Such collaboration should be a requirement for all admission reforms. There was little evidence of such work happening in the case studies undertaken, the prevalent view being that schooling and higher education are separate domains. As illustrated in Chapter 5, the best way to classify admission systems is by looking at how schools and HEIs contribute collectively to the admission system. Hence, these actors must work together to improve admission systems. Such work should in each case be part of a national strategy for improving admission systems.