November 19, 2014 Nick Preston


Staff and (underrepresented) students from the University of Leiden Social Science Department have worked in partnership to form POP-corner, a physical meeting place where activities to enhance underrepresented groups’ success in HE are based. Students and staff co-design and implement activities to support students to navigate university life and develop study skills.

Objectives of the Intervention

The POP-corner provides academic support for all students, but especially for underrepresented students with migrant backgrounds, during the first year and beyond. It is both a physical space in a central area of the department, thus easy to locate for students, and an infrastructure of multiple service provision. Accordingly, it helps students to find their way through the maze of buildings, navigate courses and curricula and (find the right places and methods to) further develop relevant skills-sets to improve their attainment and/or increase academic challenges. One of the services provided includes the ad-hoc mentoring of freshmen by older peers. The intervention is embedded in a larger infrastructure of available student support systems, and is open to all students from the Social Science Department.

Origins and rationale of this initiative

The POP-corner emerged both from the needs expressed by (underrepresented) students and the desire from the institution to develop a service that was tailor-made by and for (underrepresented) students. This duality was further facilitated by finances that were made available for a short period of time by the Dutch Ministry of Education, after which the institution took up the responsibility of supporting this practice in the long term, thus allowing the process of its institutionalisation.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

The POP-corner predominantly targets underrepresented students, especially with migrant backgrounds, for the performance gap between these students and other students continue to persist. It is aimed at reducing dropout rates and improving successful participation among these groups, but it is open to all students. POP-corner staff mostly work together with underrepresented students (2/3 year) in providing and developing their services so as to attract these students specifically. There are no specific data on how many Social Science students belong to underrepresented groups but drawing from the percentage of the university as a whole an informed estimate would place the percentage of underrepresented students between 15% and 18%.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

The persistent achievement gap between underrepresented students, especially with migrant backgrounds, and other students has led to a widely shared sense of urgency among politicians, policy advisors, university leaders and on-the-ground staff and faculty. Students too expressed a need for more tailor-made support that was accessible, topical and flexible. The institution's strategy and the culture of the department are both driven by demographic changes, i.e. a more and more diverse population, and by the basic premises of the social sciences, i.e. inclusion, social justice and development. The intervention is supported by the institution's management, by the department leaders and by student bodies. As noted, the Dutch Ministry of Education has funded this intervention for a short period of time, but had to stop these funds due to shifts in the political landscape. With regard to larger political discourses, shaped by an electorate that is increasingly moving to the right, interventions that target underrepresented groups in particular would be widely taken as highly controversial. Hence, this activity is both structured and promoted to serve all students. The main factors contributing to its success hinge on the partnership between staff and (underrepresented) students that form the foundation of the POP-corner's physical meeting place and the design and implementation of its activities.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

The POP-corner is open five days a week for students to come in and ask their questions. At the same time, it has a list of activities (for instance, workshops on academic writing, language development and other academic skills) that are based on data that is gathered through frequent evaluation exercises.  As such, the activities are constantly (re-)designed and carried out in ways that match the needs of an ever-changing group of students.  The findings of qualitative interviews with students has shown that as a result of this program students experience more sense of belonging to the institution (especially referring to mentoring by peers with underrepresented backgrounds), have more knowledge and skills to navigate the first year and are more aware of their own skills-sets and how they can improve their own academic capital.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

The project's sustainability is based on the institutional funding it receives through which it can attract students to work with staff and which enables this team to design and carry out specific activities. This project has not been replicated elsewhere.

Resources used in the initiative

Not provided

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

On a quantitative level, the gap between students with migrant backgrounds and other students has not yet decreased on an institutional level (these were the quantitative indicators of success). Multiple variables contribute to this, but in triangulation with qualitative data it comes to the fore that this program has contributed to a sense of belonging, growing academic confidence and improved skills sets 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 2008. All these evaluations were based on mixed methods and included data on enrolment, retention/attainment/completion and drop out 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.

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