The world is changing, and so is higher education. The challenges of tomorrow cannot solely be resolved with today’s knowledge but by equipping all students with the necessary skills for doing so. However, this ambitious undertaking is not an obvious one. It needs students to engage with their institutions beyond classes and lectures, to become a full part of their higher education institutions. However, in order for students to do so, they must feel like their institution is a place for all of them – welcome – and for this, all parts of the study journey must reflect the diversity of the student body. However, many students face specific challenges and barriers to becoming an integral part of the institution. In order to address these barriers, we must understand them and work towards representing all students on different levels. All students must feel welcome in student engagement and representation in order to reflect barriers and challenges for making higher education institutions adapt and change.
Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are becoming more diverse with a new and more heterogeneous student body “in terms of previous education, social and family background, gender, age, life-situation, motivation to study, current and future occupational profiles”. This is related to an ongoing process of expanding higher education, of opening access and of new labour market requirements asking for highly qualified graduates (Schuetze et al. 2002, p. 311 f.), asking for new strategies in order to do justice to the different facets of cultural and social background, the individual educational and experiential background and the living circumstances of the students (Nibuhr et al. 2012, p. 4). This also holds true for Professional Higher Education Institutions (PHEIs) which the InclusiPHE project will focus on – they typically attract a more diverse range of students with a higher proportion of non-traditional students compared to more classical universities. There tend to be more adult students, lifelong learners, parent students, students from a migrant background, students with an impairment, etc. At the same time, PHE curricula have specific characteristics that influence student engagement which is often overlooked in European and national higher education policy discussions, such as shorter times spent in the institution due to many students studying at shorter courses and considerable time spent on practical placements outside the institution. For a Professional Higher Education Institution to be truly inclusive, it needs to reflect its diverse range of students.
To achieve this, a PHEI should not just consider its study programmes and teaching and learning processes, but also aim for fully inclusive student engagement. Student engagement not only relates to student activism and student involvement in decision-making bodies but also to the structures and practices of students’ organisations themselves. All of these elements of student engagement do not fully reflect the diverse student community in a PHEI and can be difficult to access for non-traditional students and underrepresented student groups. The InclusiPHE project intends to contribute to a more inclusive student environment by raising awareness for full student inclusion and providing PHEIs and their students’ organisations with concrete ideas, tools and guidance on how to make student engagement fully inclusive. This report is the first step and the basis for addressing the related challenges in making Professional Higher Education more inclusive. It sets out to identify and understand the barriers and challenges that non-traditional students are facing when it comes to inclusive student engagement in Professional Higher Education.