Equal opportunities calls for a pluralistic approach

Equal opportunities for all in higher education. Who could object to that?! And yet, is that goal actually feasible? That was the topic of discussion in the Auditorium of The Hague University of Applied Sciences on Thursday, 26 August. The discussion during the opening of the 2021-2022 academic year also marked the start of the process towards a new education strategy. The American professor Dr Joseph Fishkin was a keynote speaker on this Thursday afternoon. He advocates a different approach when it comes to equal opportunities for all.

When we are talking about equal opportunities for all, what are we talking about exactly? What is the accompanying problem and are there conceivable solutions for that problem? Along those substantive lines, intriguing ideas were exchanged among eight panel members on the stage, roughly 75 attendees in the hall and many more who attended the opening via a live stream.

Launch

Board chair Elisabeth Minnemann received warm applause when she said there was no one happier to start the year again than she because her health has improved and because she can look back at an exceptional year during which she was physically at a distance and yet still felt a great connectedness to the university of applied sciences. Now that in-person teaching can resume, she calls on students to make good and responsible use of that. She also welcomed the external relations. ‘This coming academic year, we are going to address important strategic questions. We need your involvement in that. So, keep talking to us.’

From California

The keynote speaker was Dr Joseph Fishkin, professor of Law at the UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the top universities in the United States. Fishkin teaches and writes about suffrage, education law and employment discrimination legislation. His last book is ‘Bottlenecks, A New Theory of Equal Opportunity’. From his new office in California, he briefly explains what he argues in that book.

He describes two students. The first is the daughter of a diplomat. She has no financial concerns. She is good at languages. Has a great network through her parents. The second student has none of that. He had to work extremely hard to even be admitted to higher education. They have followed completely different development paths. If you offer them both equal opportunities, the first student is privileged nonetheless. Fishkin therefore argues for a pluralistic structure of opportunities that is not dictated by required prior knowledge and competencies.

Greater fairness

Jurriën Hamer, author and Trouw newspaper columnist, was the first panel member to reflect on what Fishkin said. He sees a certain tragedy in higher education. ‘Even if it does its very best, higher education will not be able to bridge the differences in people’s backgrounds. It is therefore better to focus on greater solidarity.’

That approach can lead to misconceptions, thinks Kiza Magendane, political scientist, author and strategic policy advisor. ‘We are not talking about a law of nature here. When opportunities are unevenly distributed, that is a consequence of how we have structured society.’ He is still extremely grateful to the Dutch people who saw more in him than just a refugee at the time. He believes that the key to equal opportunities is greater fairness.

But how? Nellie van de Griend, Dean of the Faculty of Technology, Innovation and Society, agrees with Fishkin’s words: ‘Meet them where they are. As a university of applied sciences and as lecturer, align yourself with what the students need to get the most out of themselves.’
It’s about students knowing they are seen, underlines Christina Moreno. She is founder and director of the She Matters organisation that is concerned with Afghan and Syrian women. ‘Fishkin was just taking about two students. I used to be that second one. With no money, no network and a different skin colour. I didn’t feel seen. It is very important to see students for who they are, with all the potential they have inside them!’

People who believe in you

The students in the panel also had ample opportunity to speak. Boudewijn Brandewijn came from senior secondary vocational education (MBO). ‘It’s a bit harder than when you come from senior general secondary education (HAVO) or pre-university education (VWO). That starting point in itself makes the opportunities unequal.’ His fellow student Chelsea Takeu also notes that the support for students coming from MBO could be improved. ‘Education is very good at labelling students. But all it does it create more pigeonholes. Many students doubt themselves. Not only students from MBO, but also students with a disability. They need more support. People who believe in them.’ In this, Christina Moreno hears many similarities with the Afghan and Syrian women she supports. ‘They also doubt their own abilities. They say, “What if I fail?” But you have to try it first to answer to that question. Do that with people who believe in you.’

Student-led educational theory

It’s extremely important to believe in yourself, says Youri Hemelop. Christina and Kiza’s stories impressed him. ‘Despite the bottlenecks you faced, you have made it this far! As a student, I find that highly inspirational.’

Students should get more space and time to create their own experiences, states Fenna Milbauer, a student from America. Her opinion is in keeping with the solution proposed by Naomi van Stapele and Nellie van de Griend to offer every student maximum opportunities. Naomi, Professor of Inclusive Education at The Hague University of Applied Sciences sees possibilities in student-led educational theory. ‘That is based on the critical participation of students throughout the educational process. In that, both lecturers as well as students are taken completely seriously. Experiments with this are ongoing at various places. The results are encouraging.’

Dean of Faculty Nellie van de Griend spoke about Industrial Design Engineering students who can define their own educational path and who can make choices in their own time. ‘That demands flexibility in how you support the students, but the study results are good. It is extremely interesting to take a different approach to how you assess a student’s development.’

Continue the discussions

Chair of the board Elisabeth Minnemann is pleased with the many inspiring voices that were heard. ‘The common thread in that is: to change the narrative. As a school, we can make a difference in our students’ lives. It is our duty to offer them a rich learning environment, in which curricula meet the future opportunities of the students. This year, we are working on a new education strategy. I see this opening as the start of that process. I warmly invite you all to continue the discussion about this so that we can achieve the amazing task we have of creating a learning environment in which every student feels seen.’