22 SES 09 C, Inclusion and Exclusion: Various comparative perspectives
Following the expansion of higher education, in the countries of Europe the population entering higher education became gradually more and more diverse. At the same time, although the number of students entering the system increased explosively, the dropout didn’t decrease considerably in the past sixty years, a situation which is socially and economically alarming (Barro – Jong 2013). Educational researchers are warning that dropout is a threat mainly for students having a minority status in a given country or for those who enter higher education with social, economic or other kinds of disadvantages (Brock 2010). The expansion in higher education, the appearance and the increase in the number of the student groups with special needs puts the question of equity in higher education into a new context.
In this regard, Castelli et al. (2012) identified two basically different interpretation of equity, which are based: a) either on the principle of inclusion b) or on individual talent, hardworking, performance and merits. These two different understandings involve different educational research paradigms, policy attitudes and practices. Discussing this issue, Hrubos (2012) remarked that assuring equal chances was not regarded as a priority within the Bologna higher educational reform-process. The specific requirements of minority and other disadvantaged groups tend to be regarded as marginal and often neglected by national governments and policy making agencies conducting the implementation of current educational reform. Problems pertaining to personal development closely related to identity development have been largely ignored in the Bologna discussions (Bergan 2006). Today, according to information provided by European University Association, less than 25% of European higher education institutions have introduced specific policies concerning minority ethnic groups or immigrants (Sursock -Smidt 2010, p. 70).
Taking into account the situation and needs outlined above, the structural approach of educational equity proposed by Unterhalter (2009) concluded that in a democratic society macro-social equity must be stated in the law, while micro-social equity must be implemented in practical terms at grassroots level. In view of this theoretical perspective, starting from a student-centred educational policy research approach (Kozma 2009), this paper is discussing issues linked to the concept of equity in higher education in two young EU member countries, Hungary and Romania, focusing on the role of cultural differences and confronting the public policy views with the students` perceptions.
The aim of research was to study equity in higher education and the opportunities to develop an inclusive higher education environment in the light of student attitudes towards at-risk peers. The paper is discussing students’ opinions about equity, and the inclusive attitudes towards the so called at-risk students within the student population of Hungary and Romania, focusing on the cross border area of the two countries. The analysis put against each other the system which leads the education policy (macro-environment) and the students’ perception and attitudes (micro-environment), with a special emphasis on cultural similarities, differences and differentiating factors.
The research can be regarded as relevant from different perspectives. From educational policy viewpoint it highlights the macro-social tendencies, and through the process of comparing the two countries reveals the similarities, differences and deficits. From the higher education system’s perspective, the inclusion of the student groups which require special attention is a problem which might affect the quality of education. The inclusive attitudes within student community are also important as these are preconditions of social equity and have a forecasting role influencing social maturity, occupational inclusion and the relation to the future job of the students (Johnson and Johnson 2008).
The paper consists of two main parts. The first part is discussing from macro-social perspective the vision and practice of the two EU countries with common border and partly shared historical background, in order to find similarities and differences in the legislation which regulates higher education. The research proposed to find out how decision-makers define various categories of special students, in what difference-terminology do they think, and what kind of equal chances and compensational practice do they recommend for supporting the special needs students. The second part of research analyzed student attitudes towards at-risk peers, according to the following dimensions: attitudes towards financial or non-financial support to be offered to at-risk peers and willingness to have relationship (to be a group mate, to live together in student lodgings and to live in a couple-relationship) with them. These dimensions were analyzed according to a set of demographic, socio-economic and cultural identity related variables. Students attitudes were discussed also in connection with student involvement in extracurricular activities. Finally, a special attention was devoted to the including/excluding attitudes of students enrolled in teacher training programs, taking into account the special importance of future teachers for the development of inclusive attitudes within the educational system. The quantitative international survey data used in the analysis was collected and made available by the Higher Educational Research Centre of the University of Debrecen, Hungary, in 2012 and 2014-2015, by HERD (Higher Education for Social Cohesion Cooperative Research and Development in a Cross – border Area Project HURO/0901/253/2.2.2.), by TESSCEE (Teacher Education Survey in Central and Eastern Europe) by SZAKTARNET (TÁMOP – 4.1.2.B.2-13/1-2013-0009 - Professional Service and Research Supporter of the Regional Teacher Training Network in North Hungary) and by IESA (Research Application of the University of Debrecen RH/885/2013). For the purposes of current research, at-risk student groups include those students who are in one or more of the following situations: economically disadvantaged family background, living with disabilities, being Roma, living in national minority situation or being foreign students.
Analysing the equity related regulations in higher education, it can be concluded that the situation in the two countries is rather different. The present-day Romanian legal framework is concentrating mostly on securing the right to basic services for special groups and is less preoccupied to build up specific needs orientated inclusive mechanisms. The Hungarian legal regulations are developing continuously since 1990 and are using clearly defined concepts, being characterized by a compensational practice in more than one direction. At the same time in none of the two countries is set up a monitoring system to the benefit of students belonging to special groups. The analysis of student attitudes show that students’ way of looking at their mates with special needs is not homogeneous and the different groups are seen differently: students are inclined to think about various special groups in different terms and apply different social closeness/distances to them. Students are most supporting towards their economically disadvantaged colleagues and less supporting with their Roma student peers. The students’ preferences are mainly in connection with the geographical area (country) to which they belong. In this regard there are also significant country related differences: in the researched cross border region students from Romania are more characterized by inclusive, supporting attitudes compared to the students from Hungary. The involvement in teacher training programs and the participation in extracurricular – charity, volunteering, civil or church communities - groups also increases the chance that the students will have supporting attitudes towards those group mates who need special attention.
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