From elitist to diverse: the long road to the inclusive university


In recent decades, studies on inclusive education and diversity in universities have multiplied. To evaluate the ease of access and permanence of vulnerable or underrepresented groups in higher education, these studies analyze three key factors: presence, participation and progress.

Regarding the presence or existence of diversity among students, faculty and technical staff, the university is inclusive if the sociodemographic profile of its members includes underrepresented groups according to different conditions such as disability, sex, socioeconomic condition, origin, age or ethnicity, among others.

A university is participatory if all members take part in the decisions and if it guarantees social cohesion among its members.

Progress means that learning is guaranteed. The university is inclusive when its students do not drop out. Also, if your workers have optimal professional development.

Degree of commitment

Progress in inclusive policies in universities in countries around the world is very uneven . Furthermore, the actions are aimed at different groups of people (population with disabilities, population of color, international students…).

In Europe, despite good practices in some places, universities generally do not have inclusive policies of global scope. In fact, different works affirm that universities continue to be elitist and have not managed to change their organization or culture to be more inclusive .

An important commitment

That universities are inclusive and diverse places is the objective of a specific agreement of the member countries of the European Union. The statement Towards the European Higher Education Area: responding to the challenges of a globalized world , signed in London in 2007, made reference to the social dimension of the university.

This document claims that the composition of the student body at the university reflects the diversity of the existing population in the member countries. In this way, it is intended that universities also contribute to the promotion of social cohesion and the reduction of social inequalities.

But the most current document on inclusive policies was written at the Rome Conference in 2020. This document defines the principles and guidelines to strengthen the social dimension of higher education in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) . It talks about promoting access, participation and completion of higher education studies for “vulnerable, disadvantaged or underrepresented” populations.

Specifically in Spain, universities have committed to the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations General Assembly. Goal 4 is to “ensure inclusive, equitable, quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Furthermore, the University Law in Spain ( LOSU 2/2023 ) refers to inclusion and values ​​diversity. In its articles it refers to non-discrimination, guaranteeing universal access, respect for linguistic, cultural and social diversity. In addition, it commits universities to have specific units dedicated to addressing diversity and disability.

Of words…

Taking into account the studies and also the political principles, universities should design inclusion plans, previously diagnosing the state of their policies. Some instruments that could be useful to universities have already been published, such as standards guides , frameworks for self-assessment or specific instruments such as the one recently developed by the University of Córdoba ( UCODInclusion ).

In Spanish universities there is no evidence of carrying out diagnoses on the state of their inclusive policies.

…to the facts

The diagnosis carried out at the University of Córdoba (Spain) can serve as a reference for other Spanish universities. Among the results we find that:

  1. The presence of people or groups with certain conditions of vulnerability or underrepresentation is very weak. And this occurs both in the group of students, teachers, research staff and, also, technical and service personnel. For example, the presence of people with disabilities, ethnic origin or migrant origin at the university is not representative.
  2. There are specific and well-organized units or services to address the needs of people with disabilities or for equality policies, but actions for other conditions of vulnerability are non-existent, for example, to promote the progress and completion of studies of students over 25 years.
  3. Although the people who lead the university are sensitive and interested in working on inclusion, there are no defined inclusion programs or plans in the medium or long term and with specific financing.

Universities should carry out a self-assessment of their policies on inclusion so that they do what they say. The real commitment will come with the global change in the organization and culture of the institution, to achieve non-discrimination and the well-being of students and workers.

Author Bios: María García-Cano Torrico is a Professor of the Department of Education, Azahara Jiménez Millán is Professor in Didactics and School Organization, Department of Education, Carmen Clara Bravo Torres is Postdoctoral Researcher: Margaritas Salas in the Department of Social Sciences (area of ​​anthropology) of the University of Córdoba, Elisa Perez Gracia is a Professor of the Department of Education and Eva F. Hinojosa Couple is a Full University Professor in the Department of Education all at the University of Córdoba