The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Responsibilities and gatekeeping in using language certificates for HE admission

by Jana Berg, Michael Grüttner, Stefanie Schröder

With the exception of a few master’s degree programs, the German higher education system is dominated by monolingual organizations. Therefore, language certificates are a key element of access to German higher education for international students. Trust in language certificates is critical, both for international student applicants and for university staff as well. However, in admission practice, there might be a tension between professional responsibilities and a lack of trust in the validity of standardised language certificates.

From 2017 to 2021, we conducted the study “Refugees’ pathways to German higher education institutions (WeGe)” on study preparations for refugee students in German higher education at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under grant number 16PX16015. Our interview partners included staff of HE institutions as well as preparatory colleges that have to decide about admission to study preparation courses for international students. Those courses often include language instruction, but an at least intermediate level of German proficiency is usually mandatory for enrolment.

Our interview partners demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility. On the one hand, to fulfil their perceived role in the context of quality assurance by selecting capable and motivated students. And on the other hand, to prevent students from wasting their time with futile endeavours. This responsibility was embedded in their role, but also reflected in their perception of tasks and priorities. At the same time, we found notable insecurities regarding the quantitative evaluation of language skills. Standardised language certificates, even though formally recognized on an institutional level, were commonly perceived as no representation of actual language proficiency. Interview partners referred to their practical experience that language skills of applicants with the same language certification varied widely.

This insecurity between institutional quality conventions and formal access criteria raises problems for the perceived responsibility to ensure a maximum chance of success for students. We illustrate this with qualitative interview material from one case that emphasised the perceived lack of reliable documentation of skills by standardised language certificates. The interviewee strongly identified with the role of keeping up quality conventions. However, he perceived a strict formal protocol based on paperwork as insufficient, as his professional experience had shown that language certificates do not always match his expectations in an applicant’s language proficiency. He emphasised: “I don’t really care about documents, the skills have to back them up”. His strategy to deal with this lack of trust was his personal, informal language test: “Whenever it is possible, if the people are present, I do an assessment test. It is 100 tasks with 40 minutes, like a snapshot. It is supposed to show what people can access spontaneously”. Theoretically speaking, a tension arises between two quality conventions, a first concerned with an evaluation that takes into account the local circumstances and personal responsibility for the individual purpose of the international student applicants, and a second concerned with an evaluation that treats every international student applicant as equal and self-reliant (Imdorf & Leemann, 2023). As a compromise between these two quality conventions, university staff invent localised, self-designed short language tests to address this tension.

After high dropout numbers and bad experiences with a lack of language proficiency in the past, our case study participant reported that his now more selective and rigorous procedure had improved the course results of participants. However, it was still very much based on his individual perception of potential participants, as one exception he had made emphasises: “A prime example is a woman from Sudan, South Sudan, with two small children. […] she got up at four in the morning to study before the children were awake. […] And I don’t know why, I looked her in the eye, and she wanted to. And went through with it, mercilessly. So really, as a prime example. And is now studying electrical engineering.”

This case emphasises how professional insecurities can cause the development of professional strategies that devalue institutionalised procedures and increase the relevance of subjective impressions. However, it is not an issue only related to this case, even though this interviewee was especially explicit in addressing his insecurities and his coping strategies. Our findings imply that this divergence between perceived professional responsibilities and institutional conventions on the one side, and the quality and reliability of even internationally recognized certificates on the other side, is causing a lack of direction. This void is met with strategies of additional support, individual assessment criteria, and sometimes a stronger emphasis on personal perceptions of applicants. This has implications not only for HE professionals, but also for accessibility and equity in higher education. When practitioners perceive documents as unreliable and adapt their selection measures accordingly, application procedures become unreliable and less than transparent to applicants. However, all HE application procedures should transparently respond to one question: what counts?

On a practical level, we recommend addressing such insecurities with HE practitioners, by offering practical training and creating opportunities for exchange and supervisions. Additionally, a closer look at the perceived insufficiencies of language certificates could and should also be used to further develop standardised language tests, best in a dialogue between test providers, teaching professionals and course participants. Further research in the area of study preparation on conditions conducive to the acquisition of German language skills at the university level could also usefully contribute to improvement.

Dr Jana Berg is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW). She holds a Dr. in Sociology from the Leibniz University of Hanover. Her main research is on widening participation, the governance of HE internationalization, and climate science communication.

Dr Michael Grüttner received his Dr in sociology from Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany. He conducts research at the DZHW with a focus on social inclusion, migration, lifelong learning, and higher education.

Stefanie Schröder, MA, is the coordinator for continuing higher education at the Hochschulallianz Ruhr at Bochum University of Applied Sciences. Previously, she worked as a researcher at the DZHW. Her research focuses on educational inequalities, alternative access to higher education, and anti-discrimination data.

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Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

by Juliette Torabian

Click on the title followed by ‘version française’ below to jump to the French language version of this post. We continue to encourage submissions such as the one below to include perspectives in languages other than English. Please send all contributions to the editor,

l’UE: L’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente! (version française)

Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

Fostering equity and equality between men and women and reducing different forms of gendered discrimination has taken centre stage in the European policies of the past two decades, for example in the pact for gender equality (2011-2020).

Gender equality policies and legislation have also proliferated at national and institutional levels, in an attempt to reduce existing vertical and horizontal gender segregations which have traditionally favoured men. For example, 23 out of 28 European Member States have established a voluntary or legislative quota for political parties and their parliaments to ensure women representation. To tackle the gender pay gap – which is one of the most persistent horizontal gender inequalities – in the UK and in Germany, for instance, companies are now required to establish transparency in their salary and bonus systems.

Similar policies have been applied to academia and research. In Austria, for example, there is a 40% quota for all university committees and universities are awarded additional funds for appointing women professors. In the UK, the Equality Challenge Unit monitors and supports equity and equality among staff and students in higher education, and in Sweden extra support is provided to women approaching professorship. Such initiatives also exist, in different degrees and forms, in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Finland, according to the EIGE report.

Have these multiplying initiatives transformed gendered norms and stereotypes in higher education systems and helped creating equal opportunities for both men and women? The reality is not as promising as one might wish for.

One basic issue arises from the distorted interpretations of gender equality as a concept. Increasingly, it is used as an equivalent to women’s rights and empowerment in the so-called battle of the sexes.

Within this distorted perception, “the oppressed becomes the oppressor”- to use Freire’s words. Instead of rewarding institutions where outcomes for women practically equal those of men, the tendency is for near-parity or women outperforming men to be applauded – while in both cases the actual participation levels are hidden and/or ignored. In effect, this worldview harms men but harms women even more severely. It objectifies women in institutions’ tokenism while no actual shift in power relations has taken place.

This perplexing view has a direct impact on access and success in higher education. In many OECD countries, particularly those with higher income, boys are more likely to repeat a grade, dropout of high school, and opt for directly entering the labour market rather than higher education. This has led to a ‘feminisation’ of bachelor’s programmes (58% female graduates). The choice of fields and progress in the level of study remain gender segregated. Women are more likely to study undergraduate programmes considered feminine, including education, business, law, social science, health and welfare. Men, on the other hand, study in engineering and STEM fields and outnumber women at PhD levels – that is, if they opt to enter university.

Gender inequalities that still persist are indeed causing considerable economic loss of public and private investment in higher education. “Across the EU, women have better educational outcomes than men (44% of women aged 30-34 in the EU completed tertiary education, compared to 34% of men)”, yet receive an average of 16%  less hourly pay.  Around 10% of their wage difference remains “unexplained” according to the 2018 EU report on equality.

Likewise, according to Eurostat’s 2017 report, 22.4% of the European population are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. We know that men are increasingly shunning higher education. It is also clear that “those with only upper secondary education have earned around 50% less than those with a tertiary education between 2000-15 in OECD countries”. The prospects for the average European household poverty rate in the next decades sound worrying with less educated men and lower paid educated women. It may be, therefore, fair to say that gender equality policies- in their current forms- have not delivered equal opportunities and are not fit to create sustainable societies.

I have elsewhere expressed my concern on access policies that can be carrying a “Cinderella syndrome”, hence betraying the promise of higher education in bringing social change. I reiterate my argument here with regard to the current formulation and application of gender equality policies and quotas in European higher education.

Despite some progress, gender policies have systematically failed in ‘undoing’ gender stereotypes. They are – at least partially – responsible for : increasing inequality of access for men to a majority of undergraduate fields of studies; maintaining the proportions of men and women in fields traditionally assigned to their gendered roles; and not having completely reversed trends in salaries and representation of women at professorial and higher management levels in universities. Evidence from a recent study in France has also shown the failure of gender-related quotas. It argues that having more women on appointment committees has, in fact, had reverse impacts and dramatically cut the number of female academics getting hired.

It is time to mind and close the gender gaps that still persist and to redress the new ones we have fabricated by the inadequacy of our gender policies in higher education systems.  Or, We could confide it to AI, but that might make things worse!

Juliette Torabian is a senior international specialist in education and sustainable development. She holds a PhD in Education from the Institute of Education, University College, London and a Masters in Development from SciencesPo, Paris. Her research focuses primarily on comparative higher education policy and practice, social justice and gender equality.

l’UE: l’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente!

par Juliette Torabian

Au cours des deux dernières décennies, l’équité des genres et l’égalité entre hommes et femmes ainsi que la réduction des différentes formes de discrimination fondée sur le genre, ont été au centre des politiques européennes; par exemple, le pacte pour l’égalité des genres (2011-2020).

Les politiques et les législations dans ce domaine ont également proliféré aux niveaux national et institutionnel dans les États membres européens afin de réduire les ségrégations de natures verticales et horizontales entre hommes et femmes, favorisant traditionnellement les hommes. Par exemple, 23 États membres européens sur 28 ont établi un quota volontaire ou légal pour la représentation des femmes au sein des partis politiques et dans les parlements. Pour faire face à l’écart des rémunérations entre hommes et femmes – l’une des inégalités horizontales des plus persistantes – au Royaume-Uni et en Allemagne, par exemple, les entreprises sont désormais tenues d’instaurer une transparence dans leurs systèmes de rémunération et de primes.

Des politiques similaires en matière de genre ont été appliquées dans les universités et la recherche. En Autriche, par exemple, il existe un quota de 40% pour la composition des comités universitaires mais également une compensation financière pour chaque affectation de femme académique. Au Royaume-Uni, « Equality Challenge Unit » surveille et soutient l’équité et l’égalité au sein du personnel et des étudiants, tandis qu’en Suède, il existe un mécanisme de soutien supplémentaire aux femmes en phase d’accéder aux plus hauts niveaux académiques. Selon le rapport EIGE (Institut européen pour l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes), de telles initiatives existent également, à divers degrés et sous différentes formes, en Belgique, en France, aux Pays-Bas, en Allemagne, au Danemark et en Finlande.

Ces innombrables initiatives, ont-elles réussi à transformer les stéréotypes dans les systèmes d’enseignements supérieurs et par conséquent à créer des chances égales pour les hommes et les femmes ? La réalité n’est pas aussi prometteuse qu’on pourrait espérer.

Un problème fondamental découle de l’interprétation erronée du concept de l’égalité des genres. Il est de plus en plus utilisé comme synonyme des droits et de l’autonomisation des femmes dans la prétendue bataille des sexes.

Dans cette perception tordue, “les opprimés deviennent les oppresseurs”, selon Freire. Au lieu de valoriser les institutions où les mesures prises ont donné lieu à des résultats concrets assurant l’égalité des femmes et des hommes, la tendance serait davantage à applaudir la semi-parité ou bien les femmes qui surpassent les hommes ; alors que dans les deux cas le taux réel de participation en général demeure ignoré pour ne pas dire dissimulé. En effet, cette vision nuit aux hommes mais nuit encore plus gravement aux femmes. Les femmes sont ainsi stigmatisées à travers des mesures purement symboliques sans aucun changement à l’horizon dans les rapports de force.

Cette conception perplexe de l’égalité des hommes et des femmes dans l’enseignement supérieur a un impact direct sur l’accès à l’université et sur le succès dans les études. Dans de nombreux pays de l’OCDE, en particulier ceux où les revenus sont les plus élevés, les hommes sont plus en proie au redoublement, à l’abandon de leurs études secondaires et à opter pour le marché du travail plutôt que pour les études supérieures. Cela s’est traduit par une « féminisation » accrue au niveau des licences (58% de femmes diplômées). Le choix des filières et la progression du niveau des diplômes restent dominés par les stéréotypes de genre. Les étudiantes sont davantage enclines d’obtenir une licence dans les filières dites féminines : le droit, les sciences sociales, l’enseignement, le commerce et la santé. Alors que les étudiants choisissent davantage des filières d’ingénieur, des sciences et des technologies, dépassant en final, le nombre de femmes titulaires d’un doctorat, -si bien sûr ils poursuivent leurs études supérieures.

Les inégalités de genres qui persistent entraînent une perte économique considérable en termes d’investissements publics et privés dans l’enseignement supérieur. “Dans l’ensemble de l’UE, les femmes obtiennent de meilleurs résultats scolaires que les hommes (44% des femmes âgées de 30 à 34 ans dans l’UE ont achevé leurs études supérieures, contre 34% des hommes)”, mais perçoivent en moyenne 16% de moins en salaire horaire. Considérant que 10% de cette différence de salaire, reste « injustifiée » selon le rapport 2018 de l’UE sur l’égalité.

De même, selon le rapport d’Eurostat 2017, 22.4% de la population européenne est exposée au risque de pauvreté et d’exclusion sociale. Nous savons que les hommes s’éloignent de plus en plus des études supérieures. Il est avéré que « ceux qui n’ont suivi que le deuxième cycle de l’enseignement secondaire, ont gagné 50% de moins que ceux qui ont fait des études supérieures entre 2000 et 2015 dans les pays d’OCDE ». La prospective d’un taux moyen de pauvreté au cours des prochaines décennies dans les ménages européens comptant des hommes moins scolarisés et des femmes éduquées mais moins bien payées, est inquiétante. Il serait donc juste de dire que les politiques d’égalité de genre -dans leurs formes actuelles- ne sont pas susceptibles de créer des chances égales pour une meilleure cohésion sociale.

A d’autres occasions, j’ai exprimé ma préoccupation à propos des politiques d’accès pouvant entraîner un “syndrome de Cendrillon” trahissant ainsi la promesse de l’enseignement supérieur pour assurer un changement social. Je considère donc que le même raisonnement s’avère juste quant à la formulation et l’application actuelles des politiques et des quotas en matière d’égalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur européen.

En dépit de certains progrès, les politiques en faveur de l’égalité des sexes ont systématiquement échoué dans la « suppression » des stéréotypes sexistes. Ces politiques sont au moins partiellement responsables : des inégalités d’accès des hommes à une majorité des programmes de licence ; de maintenir le statu quo de la représentation des deux sexes dans les filières traditionnellement associées à leur rôle social respectif ; et enfin, de ne pas avoir complètement inversé les tendances des niveaux de salaires et la représentativité des femmes dans les hautes fonctions universitaires. Effectivement une étude récente en France fait écho de l’échec des quotas. Elle établit que le fait d’imposer des quotas pour la présence des femmes dans les comités de sélection, a eu de facto des répercussions inverses et a considérablement réduit le nombre d’enseignantes embauchées dans les universités.

Il serait peut-être temps de traiter une fois pour toutes, l’imbroglio des disparités persistantes entre les genres et de réparer nos politiques qui par leur inadéquation, fabriquent de nouvelles formes d’inégalités dans nos systèmes universitaires en Europe. Ou bien, confions cela à l’intelligence artificielle,… à nos risques et périls !

Juliette Torabian est une spécialiste internationale dans le domaine de l’éducation et du développement durable; PhD de Institute of Education, University College London; Diplômée de SciencesPo – Paris; ses recherches sont concentrées sur l’analyse comparative des politiques de l’enseignement supérieur, la justice sociale et l’égalité des genres.