The project is based on the theory “pedagogy of excellence”. It aims to provide all Students with the adequate academic and social environment to successfully enroll in Higher Education. Besides this unique feature being implemented, a network with all local stakeholders was established to guarantee the success of the initiative.
Objectives of the Intervention
The aim of this program is to provide all students, and in particular students with migrant backgrounds, with the right academic and social environment and support to thrive, and in this vein, contains both generic and specific activities to match the needs of a diverse student body. This program is founded on a holistic approach and entails a variety of activities that all tie neatly into each other. The scope is institution-wide, but also includes partnerships with local stakeholders in the urban region it aims to serve (such as the local government bodies, secondary education institutions, companies and non-profits) and collaborations with similar institutions in other urban regions in the Netherlands.
Origins and rationale of this initiative
The program was initiated by the management of the institution who felt urged by the growing (ethnic) diversity among the student population and the widening gaps between achievements of different groups. In collaboration with similar institutions in other urban regions in The Netherlands, this institution was able to stress the urgency of the matter to the Dutch Ministry of Education, and all participating institutions were granted extra funds to develop interventions to promote academic success among all, but in particular among students with migrant backgrounds.
The holistic approach of this program is grounded in a theoretical framework, called the pedagogy of excellence, which is inspired by critical race theory and by the pedagogy of the oppressed. The framework of the pedagogy of excellence was developed by Professor Adolfo Bermeo at UCLA (USA) during the 1980s and 1990s, and has led to significantly higher retention rates among all, but in particular among underrepresented students. Two key elements of this framework were translated to the Dutch education context in this program: having high expectations of all students (regardless of their backgrounds), and having high levels of support that match the needs of all these different students (taking into account their lived experiences and different backgrounds and levels of preparation).
Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative
The target groups of this program are all different groups of students that (aim to) enrol at the institution, and in particular students with migrant backgrounds who form a large minority in this school. Migrant students in this urban region are characterised by low socio-economic backgrounds and are often the first in their families to enter higher education, hence these students need more guidance to develop academic and social capital to navigate this new environment and thrive within the institution. The geographical area is Rotterdam and environs. The program is implemented on the following levels: students, management, staff, curricula and within the educational pipeline (for instance high schools and other similar institutions). It also has established partnership with local stakeholders (such as local government bodies, companies and non-profits). This institution is thoroughly embedded in the urban context it aims to serve.
Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative
The persistent achievement gap between students with migrant backgrounds and other students has led to a widely shared sense of urgency among politicians, policy advisors, university leaders, on-the-ground staff and faculty and students. This sense of urgency has also been pressed upon these stakeholders by the corporate institutions in the region that seek talented students with the ability to think critically and work in diverse settings. With regard to larger political discourses, shaped by an electorate that is increasingly moving to the right, interventions that target migrant groups in particular would be widely taken as highly controversial. Moreover, diversity in social capital entering HE is not only present between different ethnic backgrounds, but also (for instance) between different socio-economic backgrounds within ethnic groups. Hence, this program is both structured and promoted to serve all students. Framing it as 'promoting academic success among all students' allows this program to be in tune with regional and national policies, and enables the institution to provide tailor-made support for all students while recognising, valuing and making use of their differences (be they ethnic, gender, class, marital status, learning challenges/styles and so on). The Dutch Ministry of Education has partly funded this intervention for quite some time, but had to stop these funds due to shifts in the political landscape. The management of the institution are the fundamental bearers of this program and have succeeded in making this program the point of departure of policy development and implementation. Accordingly, this program epitomises the culture (e.g. mission statement and key strategic aims) of the organisation. The institution-wide (centralised) implementation and the commitment by management to stay the course are the main factors contributing to the success of this program.
Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals
This program entails a variety of activities that tie into each other and which are implemented throughout the institution. Student guidance (before, during and after enrolment) by both staff and peers forms the foundation of this program. This is linked to remedial education, study selection workshops at high schools, mentor programs, summer and autumn schools and intake sessions. This framework provides a tight safety net that helps students to select the study that fits their talents and ambitions, develop the skills-sets required to thrive and know whom to contact when issues arise (for instance for students with specific challenges). In addition, this program has several specific student bodies to foster a sense of belonging among different groups of students. To conclude, the institution as a whole makes use of the data gathered through evaluation practices to increase expertise with regard to diversity among staff.
Describe if the project ensured its sustainability
The support by the entire management team of the institution, and the concomitant budgetary commitments has led to the institutionalisation of this program to such an extent that it now forms the point of departure of policy development and implementation. The institution has shared its best practices with similar institutions in The Netherlands and has inspired others to develop similar initiatives, but as a whole it has not been replicated elsewhere.
Resources used in the initiative
Over the 2007 – 2013 period Rotterdam UAS has funded the program with a total amount of more than 30.5 M€, of which 8.5 M€ were granted by the National government for this program and 22 M€ was contributed from the regular funds of the University. This amounts to about 1.5% of the total budget of the University. A large percentage was spent on staff costs, including hiring many students as peer coaches. The initiative has not depended on volunteers.
The policy choice to give priority to the issue of enhancing study success for all students and to invest heavily in this program was widely supported within the university.
Did the intervention reach its objectives?
On a quantitative level, the gap between students with migrant backgrounds and other students has only slightly decreased (these were the quantitative indicators of success), whereas other similar institutions that also developed interventions to diminish this gap saw either a persistence or an increase instead of a decrease, despite all efforts. Multiple variables contribute to this (both at this and other institutions) but in triangulation with qualitative data it comes to the fore that this widespread program has contributed to a sense of belonging, growing academic confidence and improved skillsets and perceptions of professional horizons among the targeted students (these were the main qualitative indicators of success).
There have been several internal and external evaluations since the start of this program in 2006. All these evaluations were based on mixed methods and included data on enrolment, retention/attainment/completion and dropout rates (for different cohorts) and interviews with students, staff and management. The institution fully understands that the trends it seeks to reverse are particularly tough and socially entrenched, and not only caused by/within reach of the institution, and thus require long-term investment before they will translate into more pronounced positive quantitative data.
Evaluation of the program has led to further steps bringing the issue of study success even closer to the heart of the university. High levels of support for students are necessary but not sufficient. Study success is the fruit of the day-to-day interaction between students and staff; the quality of that interaction is now the main focus of the continuing program within the University.