2003 Policy Paper “Equal Opportunities in Higher Education”

Share it:


ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe was founded in 1982 to promote the educational, economic, cultural, social and political interests of students in Europe. ESIB, through its 48 members from 36 countries, currently represents more than 10 million students in Europe.



The Statutes of ESIB state that all “members of ESIB must be open to all students from… higher education institutions in the country concerned, regardless of… colour, ethnic or cultural origin, gender, sexual orientation,… or any disability they may have. To promote equal chances of access to education for all people.” It is important to ensure that this principle is enshrined in Higher Education (HE) as a whole to ensure that all students have equal access and opportunities within higher education, presuming that individual competencies and desire to learn are equally distributed throughout society. Education will only be truly equal if all people can participate in educational experience, which is accessible to all and that acknowledges and responds to the diversity of the student body in terms of access, progression and outcomes. This policy paper aims to give ESIB’s views on the Equal Opportunities issues within higher education, concentrating specifically on the areas around disability, sexual orientation, race and gender based on from the perspective of a norm in society. It is important to note that ESIB believes that all forms of inequality and discrimination are equally harmful and wrong. Frequently Higher Education is a reproduction of a largely “monocultural” society, preserving the dominant values and the values of the dominant groups. This monoculture has systematically led to the exclusion of many in society, because of economical, social, cultural factors and life choices. ESIB recognizes that socio-economic and cultural status have a large bearing on all aspect of equality as well as being characteristics that may be discriminated against in their own right. Many groups and individuals that are oppressed and discriminated against are also frequently typified by a relatively low socio-economic standing and a stigmatization of culture. Further, that these problems often stem from society discrimination against these groups. ESIB believes that no aspect of equality can be taken in isolation and that no form of discrimination should be regarded as more serious than any other and that all aspects should be addressed together in a holistic manner. The primary aim of equality in the Higher Education sector is to abolish its monocultural nature, so that HE becomes truly inclusive. While we specifically explore four areas in this policy paper, this is not intended to be a finite list. The process of obtaining equality is an ongoing one involving work by both national unions and ESIB. The mechanisms of discrimination of certain structural characteristics in individuals or groups in society and the higher education sector are similar, the marginalized groups are universal throughout Europe, but the real situation concerning the extend of discrimination can differ between the countries. We selected the four areas outlined in this paper because of ESIB´s previous engagement and work done on these topics.



In an area such as equal opportunities it is important to ensure that people are speaking with the same terms and with the same interpretation of these phrases, we are therefore starting with a brief glossary of the key terms that are used in the discussion of equal opportunities.

Equality can be defined as parity of esteem, and access to opportunity, regardless of individual differences.

Discrimination can be defined as treating people differently or less favourably, for any given reason.

Oppression is the denial of rights and limiting access and/or opportunity using the projection of power as a means to achieve this.

Autonomy is the right to identify, organise and take ownership of information, decisionmaking and social, political and cultural activity.

Safe Spaces
Safe space provides for an environment free from all forms of discrimination. This could be an area, such as a women’s room. Within this concept there is the danger of a paradox developing, where the need to escape from discrimination leads to segregation, which in turn could either breed contempt or engender discrimination by the “ safe” group of “ others” . It is important therefore, that safe space acts as a catalyst to reclaim public space so there would no longer be a need for “ safe space” .

Liberation is freedom from discrimination and oppression for all members of society, the right to be different but equal, both in law and social values.

Affirmative Action
Affirmative action is a means to achieve equality by a program of proactive measures.

Positive Discrimination
Positive Discrimination is a process that seeks to temporarily redress a specific inequality by focusing on the rights of the discriminated individuals or groups in society, in a particular setting and in an enforceable way. These measures are only means towards reaching equality in order to redress inequalities, but do not necessarily create equality in themselves. They can be understood only as short term measures.

Self Definition
Self Definition is the power of an individual to define him or herself and amongst others have the possibility to say who they are and what they stand for without being bound by other people, constraints or labels.


Developing Equality Legislation

Equality Legislation should be seen as one of the vital steps in achieving equality. Nevertheless equality legislation alone cannot compel someone to change his or her views without being supported by proper enforcement. It creates the framework against which discrimination can be removed. That same framework then provides the support for the development of an equality orientated society although this requires a level of re-education to encourage a change in mindset. Equality Legislation may be useful in leading to social change, which removes any form of discrimination. Equality Legislation as a whole should always be framed in such a way that the aim is to create parity throughout society.


Disability Discrimination in HE

In addressing the issue of disability equality in higher education, it is important to appreciate the varied opinions and perspectives on disability that exist within society. Attitudes are everything in addressing disability discrimination, and forming constructive attitudes relies on starting from an even playing field. Perspectives on disability vary within three standard sociological models.

  • The medical model is characterized by “ labelling” via diagnosis, focusing on the misfortune of the disabled person and seeking to “ cure” the disability.
  • The charity model is based on sympathy for the disabled person from the “ normal” society, which provides services and support because they feel pity. Again the disability is the domain of the individual, associating disability with shame and low self-esteem.
  • The social model is founded on the central belief that an individual with an impairment is disabled by society, which creates and fosters attitudes that prevent people with different abilities from functioning equally within it. This model removes the emphasis from the disabled person and places the responsibility on society to adapt for integration, rather than adapt to discrimination. It also removes the onus from the impairment, as a wheelchair user and a mental health service user could both be discriminated against by discriminatory employment practices.

Disability discrimination takes many forms, both overt, in the deliberate denial of accessor services because of disability, and covert, for example in speaking over the head of a wheelchair user. In the context of higher education, disability discrimination can arise at all levels, including the admissions process, assessment, didactic, and, in a wider sense, mobility.

Solutions are complex and may rely on a combination of legislation, quality assurance audit with incentives, and most importantly, the involvement of disabled people. ESIB should promote awareness of the different models of discrimination and promote the social model as the best way of overcoming discrimination against disabled students. ESIB further believes that adaptations should be proactive rather than reactive, and should seek to raise awareness, promote  responsibility, and not provide an extra cost and inconvenience to the student.


Sexual Orientation in HE

For generations, LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) people have been denied the opportunity to self define through a socially acceptable and legally reinforced barrier of discrimination. As a result, LGB people have been forced into silence, invisibility and conformity, an experience that contributes to the increased levels of low self-esteem, depression and suicide in the LGB community. It is only in the last generation that the “Gay Rights Movement” has been created and starting campaigning for liberation of gay people. Development of the lesbian and gay community has significantly contributed to the diversity within the society as a whole. As those societies adjust to perceiving LGB relationships as “ normal” , valid and loving, the fight for rights moves from legal equality to realistic equality. Archaic attitudes are still enshrined in law in many areas of the world, where homosexuality is still treated as a capital crime or a psychiatric illness, with associated stereotypes of gay people as “ dangerous” or “ promiscuous” . Even within Europe there are examples of discriminatory laws, for example in preventing schools from discussing the “ homosexual lifestyle” . This has the effect of reducing information for young people in schools and denying them positive role models. This in turn reduces the concept of LGB relationships to the sex acts perceived by “ society” to be the basis of LGB relationships, and denying gay youth the opportunities to discuss and explore loving relationships. In this context, students leaving school for University are unlikely to have had the opportunity to express their sexuality in a positive and safe environment. The role of the student movement in supporting that diversity and providing that safe environment is enormous. When students move away from their parents for first time and experience the liberal atmosphere associated with higher education it can result in more students “ coming out” and coming to terms with their sexuality for the first time. Students’ unions can play a key role in supporting these students by creating a safe space where students can talk to other gay people to help them come to terms with their sexuality. Students’ unions can also provide LGB Equality Training (“ Pink Training” ) for students’ union officers to help them better represent their students and also people that make homophobic remarks as part of any punishment/ rehabilitation.


Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in HE

Racism, whether it is overt or institutionalized, as a concept is one of the most widely recognised and socially unacceptable forms of discrimination. In society, discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and cultural diversity pervades attitudes on the streets, in employment, in social settings and in social support and welfare provision. Bearing in mind the role of higher education as a trendsetter there is discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and cultural diversity in the sector, and even in the student movement. There is a considerable under representation of ethnical minority groups at all levels of Higher Education. Discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and cultural diversity, in common with all discrimination can be considered in terms of obvious, direct abuse, and more
subtle, sometimes even unconscious differentiation and institutional racism. Overt racial abuse occurs in higher education, in direct verbal or physical attacks, deliberate exclusion from courses or activities and breaching safe space in tolerating the activity of racist groups in the student movement. More covert abuse takes the form of, for example, marking down on assessments, under representation on decision making bodies, or in deliberate or unconscious under valuation or refusal to validate the academic standards of other higher education systems. Within Higher Education it is important to counter the negative association experienced by ethnical and cultural minorities.

ESIB universally condemns all forms of discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and cultural diversity. Students are affected by overt discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and cultural diversity on a daily basis arising from the effect of national laws, the actions of institutions such as universities or political pressure groups, and the activity of individuals. ESIB further believes that a key to the overcoming of this prejudice is effective training for staff and students at all levels of the HE system. There is clear scope for the student movement to engage the media and other pressure groups fighting discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and cultural diversity in promoting awareness. Covert discrimination on the grounds of ethnic and cultural diversity is far more difficult to combat, but in many ways more important to address. Mentoring schemes between students currently in higher education, and schools should create role models and expectation of those groups and facilitate their accessing higher education. The regular revisiting of diversity strategies by institutions is important, and these strategies should look to the qualitative rather than the purely quantitative aspects of achieving integration. Student unions have to ta be an active role in the reviewing of curricula in order to fight ethno-centrism. The use of varied pedagogical tools to embrace different cultures should be encouraged so that academic standards can be accurately assessed without prejudice, eg. anonymous marking schemes.


Women in HE

Discrimination towards women is still prevalent in society including in the current labour market provisions for women, eg career progression and an inequality of pay, the attitude towards childcare, the ideology of gender equality and the existence, and the impact of gender equality legislation. In that context of a higher education system that leads opinion in society, we observe gender related discrimination towards women students and staff members. Women students face traditional access issues such as perceived stereotypes and a lack of positive role models in all areas of their undergraduate careers. Those include application procedures, in assessments, and in the lack of flexible entry and exit points to HE that family commitments can require. In effect there is both horizontal and vertical discrimination against women. Women academics and university staff members face similar, and more diverse discrimination. Not only is this inherently damaging to the careers and ambitions of those women, but it also has a negative effect on future generations of female research students, academics and professorial staff and more generally the academic discipline. There is an ingrained tendency for influential positions within universities to be occupied
by men, and when these “ gatekeepers” lock women out from career opportunities the scope for progression of women is limited. This can be reinforced through an unequal peer review system.

Because of the nature of the university environment, the conventional “ times” for producing optimum research, fulfilling criteria such as mobility or climbing the ladder of tenure to professorship often conflict with pregnancy and society’ s traditional view of women as carers of children. Until these inequalities are redressed, there is still a gender pyramid with large numbers of female students at the bottom and disproportionately small numbers of female professors, in comparison to men, at the top. Barriers between levels of the pyramid, commonly termed “ glass ceilings” , provide a disincentive for female students to progress female postgraduates and eventually female professors.

Though these nationally influenced factors are important, the role of higher education, and particularly the student movement as a catalyst for societal change cannot be ignored, and must be promoted. Across Europe there have been drives to empower women students and academics, through legislation, through mentoring projects teaming women at different levels of academia, and through incentive based schemes to encourage faculty attitudes to change. Only structural change coupled with multidisciplinary approaches will shift attitudes, and potential be realised. ESIB seeks to promote the benefits of projects encouraging these multidisciplinary approaches. ESIB believes that there should be greater effort to encourage the appointment of more females to senior positions within Higher Education and an increased flexibility in appointment procedures. In regards to gender equality in the Higher Education sector positive discrimination and affirmative action methods are among a number of methods, which can bring about structural changes concerning parity and redress under-representation. However these actions play a minor role in challenging the deeply rooted attitudes of individuals and society.



ESIB encourages the democratisation of HE, so that everyone will be able to access and succeed in HE. Though there is a perception that some forms of discrimination are more socially acceptable than others, or that the sanctions applied to discriminators vary with type. ESIB strongly believes that all discrimination is equally abhorrent, and any sanctions must be applied equally when discrimination occurs in Higher Education. ESIB considers education and HE in particular as to be the main instrument of socio-cultural mobility instead of education being the reflection and the system of reproduction of the existing inequalities and discriminations in society. For centuries, HE has been the preserve of elite in society. This institutional discrimination within the HE-sector like sexism, hetero-sexism, racism and discrimination on the grounds of disabilities has caused negative effects such as lower participation and higher drop out rates of these marginalized groups. ESIB therefore believes that equality policies in HE should focus on inclusiveness of education rather than the characteristics of the individual. Equality policy should not impede the quality of the academic standards in HE. According to ESIB, policy on equality should be a multidisciplinary combination of approaches and strategies, focusing not only on the access, but also on progress and success in HE.

  • The focus on access implies the need for strategies of equality of opportunities: these affect inequalities outside the education (in this case), but who have their impact on the educational performances. Inequalities such as disabilities, distance, economic disadvantage or social and cultural backgrounds.
  • The focus on progress necessitates strategies for equality of treatment that try to smash consciously or unconsciously discriminations over prejudgments and curriculum effects of social distorted expectations of ethical barriers.
  • The focus on transfer reveals the need for strategies of equality of outcome. These focus partly on the result of the two previous policies, partly on quantitative results of education of different groups. The main idea here is that the right to education is more than just the right to get access to an institution of education. So that everybody should be in the position to obtain the same skills regardless of his or her background. In practice this means that money should be spent in an education that is as comprehensive as possible, with personal assistance for educational, physical and psychological problems.
  • ESIB believes that mainstreaming is one of a number of methods, which can help achieve equality: Mainstreaming in the context of Higher Education must be a process of integrating a minority or discriminated group into the main educational process rather than creating a separate process or educational experience for these individuals or groups, eg. this involves adapting teaching methods, to accommodate the diversity of needs of individuals This should be done with true regard to unnecessary segregation within education, leading to the inclusion of these individuals and groups and enhancing the spirit of diversity in education. One major drawback of mainstreaming is that it fails to offer a critic or challenge of the norms of the mainstream.

Student Unions and National Unions of Students have an integral role to play in ensuring that all students receive the support and help that they require. The creation of Equal Opportunities Policies and Anti-Discrimination Strategies with a clear aim of how to tackle discrimination in Higher Education and in Student Unions ensures that when there are infringements of these policies that there are sufficient penalties to deter recurrence. This increases the transparency of the process, and increases ownership of the policies. As well as ensuring that there are structures available to protect all students from discrimination there should also be awareness raising campaigns about the different forms of oppression and discrimination that students can face and help tackle peoples’ prejudices. This may also be achieved by raising awareness of problems through student and national media and working with other organisations campaigning in the field.

  • ESIB believes that Student Unions should campaign for Anti-discrimination bodies in educational institutions and institutional complaints procedures such as anti discrimination committees, Ombudspersons or Help Desks (first point of call which provides information and support).
  • Bringing diversity into teaching skills should become a permanent concern of HEI’ s. Since ignorance is feeding prejudices and hostile attitudes, teaching staff has to be made aware of processes and mechanisms of discrimination that take place in HE. Teaching training sessions on diversity should therefore be provided by specialized centres. New methods of teaching that challenge the traditional and discriminatory HE-perspectives should be developed and implemented. On the other hand regular evaluation of teachers is required – evaluation in which respect for diversity is one of the examined criteria. It should be hold in mind that diversity may not be an excuse to give up the equal outcome for everybody. The right to education means that considering diversity every single student should be seen as a challenge.
  • Equality-proofing of higher education such as lectures, textbooks, study-material etc can assist in creating equality. This is achieved by screening on the monocultural approach which shows examples, makes references to the dominant values. The objective is to shift from a monocultural to a multicultural approach.
  • Assessments and tests in general often tell more about socio-cultural origin than relevant competences. Also tests-results depend on the intensity of and the direction in which students have been stimulated. Preparations for assessments should be introduced within the curriculum in such a way as to reduce inequalities caused by cultural or socio-economic origins of the students. There should also be equality proofing in the process which leads to the formulating and evaluating of assessments and test
  • Government authorities and the HE-sector need to democratically involve representatives of discriminated individuals or groups in society in identifying the problems, finding and implementing of solutions. Within these methods there needs to be an individual approach to redress discrimination of individuals or groups in society and in Higher Education.
  • Through the Bologna Process and other mechanisms related to higher education the principle of equal mobility should enable and support the opportunity for all individuals or groups to benefit from both vertical and horizontal mobility. It is also important to ensure that the language of HE is understandable and promotes equality. This doesn’ t necessarily mean that there is a lowering of standards of language but on the contrary, ease of access to the language of higher education can increase equality and quality.

The process of obtaining equality is an ongoing one, which involves working on regional, national and international level. It is important to acknowledge that equality measures and actions should be clearly defined but not prescriptive and should be flexible and provide for cultural sensitivity. To further these aims ESIB should:

  • ESIB should seek to cooperate with all organisations with whom it works to further the equality agenda. Through its work and partnership with local, national and regional student organisations identify the problems, find and implement solutions to redress discrimination in Higher Education, which are appropriate in the context of the local, national or regional student organization involved.
  • The Equality Working Group should collect research and develop a code of practise of various resources on equality and how to implement the equality agenda primarily within the higher education sector.


ESIB needs to review, whether the statutes of ESIB should cover all discriminated groups and whether the statutes themselves are discriminatory.



Adopted at the 44th Board Meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, May 2003


We make sure you
don't miss any news
Skip to content