Big ambitions, small steps: diversity among incoming students

The first phase of the project Diversity: Intake and Selection (DIS) is complete. Communications Consultant and Project Team Member Irene Mol tells about the experiences so far and the plans for the upcoming four years.

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Irene Mol. Photo: Kees Gort

Started in 2019 on the initiative of the programme Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI; called Diversity Taskforce at the time), the DIS Project aims to ensure that all students, despite their backgrounds, feel welcome and at home at Utrecht University.

The goal was to find out if there are any thresholds in the application process that can result in a selective effect, says Irene Mol. We went looking at a degree-programme level how intake and outflow work. We wanted to know which students were there and whether or not there were students who structurally apply less often or are admitted less often to certain degree programmes. From all faculties and University College Utrecht, degree programmes joined the project. Some degree programmes were already working on certain aspects of diversity, but it was new for most of them.

I think degree programmes found it interesting to see how their student populations are composed and how their studies progress. The profile varied from degree programme to degree programme. We approached diversity very broadly: the man-woman balance was very important to some degree programmes. We looked at the types of students or their backgrounds for other degree programmes, such as whether or not they were first-generation students. And some degree programmes are already very international; others not yet, but would like to be. We wanted to know how we can better reach and guide the various groups.

Outreach to schools and research into study associations

After that analysis of the starting situation, each degree programme made a plan. Besides that, the degree programmes also receive communication and marketing advice for their information and recruitment.

Besides the specific approach for each degree programme, we also went to work on umbrella themes such as the organising of outreach activities at secondary schools or the intake of hbo students. Two connection officers have been appointed for the outreach activities at secondary schools. Their task is to make better connections between the various activities and make these visible. There were already many different activities that existed separately from each other, such as those for the intake of first-generation students. We poll students afterwards on what they think of the outreach activities and which suggestions they have for improvement.

Degree programmes found it interesting to see how their student populations are composed

Study associations are important to the climate within a degree programme. They also often play a big role in providing information to future students. That's why we did a survey into the way in which study societies can contribute to increasing diversity and inclusion within their degree programmes, and organised meetings for them. The research helped us to gain insight in the perception of diversity, inclusion and intake among students, and the vision study associations have on that. The response was very positive, although many societies didn't know very well how to handle it. We noticed that societies are often not aware of how big their roles are when it comes to information, like on open days. They asked us for handles, and these have now been included in the next project.


I see the value of the first two project years mostly in that degree programmes are now more aware than before when it comes to the composition of their intakes and the necessity to actively guide that. The topic is now also supported more broadly in the organisation.

We started on the next project this year, this time for four years. One of the goals is to make it permanent in the organisation. I think it's good to have big ambitions and make small steps. We also see growth right away: more degree programmes have signed up with the project. We deduce from this that the project meets a need. The current plan is to deal with the degree programmes in clusters, so they can learn from each other and exchange ideas with each other.

The first results for the degree programmes are already visible. The Physics degree programme has worked hard to get more women in the degree programme. Many girls did attend the open days, but ultimately didn't apply after all. At the degree programme, they followed up on the attendees by calling them to ask what their reasons were for making other choices. This in part resulted in Utrecht now having the most female Physics students of all Dutch universities.

Utrecht has now the most female Physics students of all Dutch universities

At the School of Law, they looked at obstacles at the intake level. For instance, they dropped an additional entry requirement for hbo students when they heard it unnecessarily blocked hbo intakes. That group often also has many students with migration backgrounds. The Medicine degree programme examined the admission process again. Turned out that the questions they ask during the admission process not always line up with a diverse target group. They improved that immediately.

Another good example is the Faculty of Humanities, where they did extensive research at the Dutch Language and Culture programme to find out why students with migration backgrounds do or do not choose Language and Culture programmes. Humanities also looked at Master’s programmes that are possibly interesting for students at universities for applied science (HBO) in order to get more diversity among Master's students, because HBO students have a long standing of being more diverse than university students because of the broader intake possibilities.

Make it sink in

Irene already sees things change at her own Marketing cluster, which is a part of the University Corporate Offices.

We have definitely become more aware of diversity thanks to the project and we now approach it on a broader level than before. Where we used to focus on matters such as Honours education, we now also handle recruitment more diversely ourselves. I notice the difference very clearly. Our focus has changed, and I absolutely think that's a positive development.

We've expanded the Unibuddy system. There, pupils can chat with students in the degree programmes that interest them. We organise student-for-a-day sessions and we do more research into those who sign up. We've also followed up on future students by actively calling them and asking them why they do or don’t enrol at our university. If you know that, you can arrange your information better. For open days and at schools in the area, we started with speed coaching; students who talk with pupils about their choice of degree programmes on site. In all activities we organise, we pay more and more attention to a good visibility of a broader representation of our students.

We have definitely become more aware of diversity and take an broader approach than before

We'll continue along the line we've started on now. We hope we can visit schools again and organise open days on site. In that regard, a lot can also be said in favour of online open days. We notice that the threshold to attend an open day online is lower than when pupils and their parents have to come to the university. This lets us reach more and other pupils.

It's also important to get other communication and marketing employees on board. We have provided inclusive-writing training to employees, among other things, with the goal of making them aware of how they handle language and which images they use as illustration.

We include all of this in the new approach, so the attention does not die down after the project ends. I see that as the biggest challenge of the project: making sure it sinks in across the entire organisation.