Improving inclusive academic success and attainment is an important priority in national and institutional policy. Access to higher education only is not good enough. Successful programs in the IDEAS database often present a holistic approach where different angles are taken into account. There is more awareness that interventions should not only be focused on ‘changing’ students but should also focus in changing institutions. ECHO took this notion as a starting point in developing strategies to improve attainment, which in fact was more aimed at improving an inclusive and effective learning environment. In this vision two theoretical concepts are important: ‘the pedagogy of excellence’. Both concepts were inspired by existing practices of the Academic Advancement Program (AAP) of UCLA, which is one of the featured case studies identified as being successful within the IDEAS database.
In this conceptual framework, four levels of intervention are taken into account to develop an institutional strategy to improve attainment by creating an effective and inclusive learning environment:
• Organization & Management
• Faculty and Support Staff
All levels need interventions to enhance a stimulating and effective learning environment but are also related to each other. In reality an institution is not able to focus on all levels at the same time because of lack of commitment, funding or capacity. In that case an institution should prioritize what is necessary in the course and aims of the institutional strategy. The experience in the Netherlands is that institutions put a lot effort on the level of Organization & Management and Students. The aim is to embed all new interventions in the mainstream structure and processes. Getting commitment of the executive board of an institution is often a first step since management has to agree for reasons of mission, strategy and finance. For the sake of sustainability it is important to have the commitment on this level since the aim of changing the institution is a long-‐term process with funding commitments and organizational implications as well. The levels of intervention, which are often delayed or not taken into account, in the first place are the level of Curriculum and Faculty and Support Staff. Postponing interventions on the level of curriculum is often a matter of funding. Developing new curriculum and course content development is a costly process in terms of staff time and financing. The intervention level of Faculty and Support Staff is the most difficult and sensitive area to encounter. Working towards an inclusive climate is implicitly asking a change of attitude of professionals. A change that is inspired and stimulated by the awareness that the diversity of the student population is not a temporary situation but the reality. Apart from that, current ways of lecturing, coaching etc., need further innovation given the changes in student population.
The motivation to change institutions is unfortunately not always stimulated by an increasing critical mass of diverse students. It certainly needs a vision, a mission and change agents apart from a business case. Even institutions in the urban area whose business case is clear, based on data of the racial attainment gap are not immediately inclined to change completely. There is a layered approach in this process. Having support from the executive boards of institutions is a prerequisite. From a strategic perspective everyone agrees to the importance of diversity for an organization. The challenge is more how this process will be implemented and who will lead a process of change and innovation based on changes in society and changes in the student population. This is a holistic approach based on high expectations of all students, rather than on deficiencies (pedagogy of excellence). This approach is taking life stories into account that represents identity development of individual staff and students to develop new programs for students and professional development for professionals (pedagogy of narratives). Quantitative results in the Netherlands showed that institutions that had a diversity policy in combination with an infrastructure of access and attainment programs were more successful in improving retention and attainment. This could be an institution inside or outside the urban areas. Investing in student support services, will improve attainment and a sense of belonging of students if the daily reality and identity of all students are taken into account and if students are addressed on their strengths and not on their deficiencies. Having high expectations of all students will positively influence student’s academic self-‐confidence as well as their academic motivation and in the end lead to more attainment.
In the Netherlands the process of developing interventions and programs to improve inclusion and academic success of students institutions encountered a number of dilemmas. In developing and implementing inclusion policy aimed at access and improving academic attainment project leaders who were responsible for the process of change within their institution faced a number of dilemmas
The dilemma of generic versus specific
Specific policy and targeted aims often evokes resistance. But it appears that only generic measures are ineffective. Institutions need a combination of both type of policy and practice to be able to serve accommodate all student.
The dilemma of commitment and support
Internal commitment and support is a key condition for successful change. The role and mandate that the project leader has within an organization will be more effective if important stakeholders in the organization support new developments. Often the interests of different stakeholders are conflicting. The commitment of the executive board is not sufficient but necessary for funding and long-‐term strategy. It’s most effective when there is top down as well as a bottom up process happening at the same time
The dilemma of the autonomy of the academic departments
There is great autonomy of academic staff especially at research universities in the Netherlands. Involving faculty from the departments and the leadership of a department is often as important as having commitment of the executive board.
The dilemma of priority
To what extent do institutions see diversity policy as a priority is dependent of how diversity is vested within the organization. The more vested diversity at multiple levels within institutions, the better interventions will be embedded in mainstream processes, the more successful institutions. In the case of limited funding it will be a difficult to prioritize. Who’s interests are the first priority students, faculty, management of an institution?
The dilemma of continuity
The continuity of the acquired knowledge and experience would ideally require another separate project period. Since continuation is most unlikely it is important to include the long-‐term strategy in the design of the project development to make sure that there will be commitment as well after a project is finished. Most of the projects should ideally be embedded in mainstream programs and processes.