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You are reading: Review of the 25th European Access Network (EAN) Conference

Written by Paul Koshy, NCSEHE Research Fellow, and Dr Nadine Zacharias, NCSEHE 2016 Equity Fellow

The 25th European Access Network Conference opened on Sunday 29 May at the University College, Dublin (UCD), under the title “Retrospective for Perspective,” looking backwards over 25 years but also forward to the next 25.

The Chair of the EAN Conference Planning Team, Anna Kelly, Director of Access & Lifelong Learning at the UCD, opened the conference by referencing the great changes that had taken place in equity discussion in Europe over the past 25 years. Anna went on to highlight the challenges ahead, including many that Australian practitioners and policymakers face: reduced public funding for higher education; the mainstreaming of equity issues; and the perceived conflict between equity in higher education and other aspects of universities’ missions.

Despite the approaching challenges, Professor Mark Rogers, the UCD Registrar and Deputy President, noted that “difference is the new norm” in higher education and that equity policy was central to university policy. A conference exhibit, “Access through the Looking Glass” captured the challenges and opportunities inherent in this statement and participants were invited to add to the discussion by adding to event’s “burning issues” noticeboard.

The plenary sessions opened with personal reflections on the migration perspective in higher education from Professor Halleh Ghorashi (VU University Amsterdam) and Dr Frank Tuitt (University of Denver).

Professor Ghorashi, an Iranian dissident who emigrated as a refugee to the Netherlands in the late 1980s, emphasised the importance of education to migrants’ sense of self-perception and the unique opportunity they had to “start again”. She also discussed the conventional view of migrant experiences in education and the labour market, which is based on perceived deficits in skill and language and overlooks the wealth of experience and knowledge migrants have to offer their communities.

Dr Tuitt shared his story of growing up in the UK and US as the son of West Indies’ migrants and his work in US universities. He cautioned against the creation of “islands of access excellence” that placed pressure on university administrators to focus on “diversity” rather than “equity”, resulting too often in equity initiatives not being enacted by institutions.

The parallel sessions provided for a broad range of discussions on equity programs from institutions in Ireland, the UK, Europe, the US, the Caribbean and Australia, amongst others. There were many commonalities between programs, with attendees agreeing on the importance of good program design for evaluation purposes, in the context of broader challenges associated with access and participation.

Access and participation challenges were further outlined in keynote addresses.

In his plenary, Professor Patrick Clancy discussed the evolution of equity policy in Europe which has seen European higher education undergo the familiar transition from elite to mass higher education. The Bologna Process – a European initiative to coordinate higher education management and data collection across 47 countries – has resulted in increasing recognition of equity policy with two-thirds of signatories able to identify concrete measures undertaken at the national level to improve equity outcomes. Challenges remain, however, notably in the definition of equity groups both at national and international levels, as well as concerning policy responses to core equity issues of migration, Indigenous communities, socially isolated groups and students with disability.

Professor Kathleen Lynch of UCD expanded upon Professor Clancy’s concerns, commenting that globalisation was directly affecting equity policy via the increase in private sector provision, the rise of global university rankings and a ‘global higher education market’ – trends that tend to see equity policy subordinated to concerns around resourcing and the managerial response.

The conference closed with the Maggie Woodrow Memorial Lecture by Dr Ebun Joseph, an Intercultural Consultant, Training and Employment Officer at BITC Ireland, and a vote on options for the EAN Dublin 2016 Access Proclamation, both of which highlighted the importance of looking at diversity and equity as an opportunity within global higher education.

The NCSEHE will post the formal summary of the EAN Conference and the final version of the Dublin Proclamation when both become available.