Ethnic Differences in Education across Europe

February 17, 2011

Central European University hosted the closing conference of the EDUMIGROM research initiative on February 11-12, 2011. The project aimed to investigate how ethnic differences in education contribute to the diverging prospects for minority ethnic youth and their peers in urban settings. The research was coordinated by the Center for Policy Studies at CEU and conducted in ethnically diverse communities with second-generation migrants and Roma in nine countries of the European Union (Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). The conference gave an account of the major results of the three-year research initiative and provided the platform to discuss the wider contexts of multicultural citizenship, access to education across Europe, and ethnically differentiated educational practices as crucial determinants of social inclusion. Over 100 individuals participated in the conference, including representatives of civil society organisations, ministry officials, as well as members of the international academic community.

Aside from colleagues who participated throughout the EDUMIGROM research undertaking, external experts and scholars were invited to contribute to the discussion and share their views on the matter of ethnicised inequalities in schooling and address steps that could make a difference in education: Friedrich Heckmann (University of Bamberg, Germany; Director of the European Forum for Migration Studies), Jana Huttova (Education Support Program, Open Society Foundation – London), Barbara Hobson (Stockholm University, Sweden), Yvonne Leeman (University of Humanistics, Utrecht, the Netherlands), Barbara Herzog-Punzenberger (Federal Institute for Research in Education and Development, the Austrian school-system), Maurice Crul (Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, University of Amsterdam) and Lilla Farkas (President of the Advisory Board, Equal Treatment Authority of Hungary).

In the opening panel of the conference Júlia Szalai, Principal Investigator of the EDUMIGROM project, emphasized that the concept of ethnicity is connected to our understanding of society. On the one hand the Gellnerian type of nation-state structures our understanding of the world and on the other, welfare states are founded upon the idea of equal citizenship, however, due to the weakness of the institutions of participatory democracy and of the representation of interests different from the mainstream, groups can easily be stigmatised as “other”. This then legitimises their exclusion and the maintenance of social-ethnic inequalities that set the ground for the notion of differential citizenship. In the second part of her talk Szalai emphasised the need for multiculturalism as a response to diversity and also as a possible way to restructure existing hierarchies in society, promoting the cultural dissolution of the middle class. Multiculturalism is a dialogue oriented concept and is based on the idea that difference shall be accepted and we have to learn how to live together.

Friedrich Heckmann shared sixteen recommendations stemming from the work of NESSE (Network of Experts in Social Sciences of Education and Training), in order to achieve the successful integration of migrant children in European schools and societies, such as (1) install an effective preschool system and child care system which would improve educational opportunities, attainment and school careers of immigrant children; (3) integrate elements and symbols of the cultures of origin into school life, into the curriculum, textbooks and in other school materials; (5) desegregate classes and schools where there is a high concentration of minority students; (15) migrant children should come to a full command of the lingua franca of the immigration country as early as possible.  

Jana Huttova introduced the initiative Integration and Diversity in Education in Europe (IDEE) which is co-funded by the EU and the Open Society Foundation (OSF) and could be considered as an attempt on behalf of the OSF to shift its exclusive focus on the Roma to migrant communities. It combines two main lines of action: advocacy actions at the European level and support to collaborative projects at the local level. Regarding EU level integration, Huttova emphasised that even if education is not part of the acquis communitare, integration is one of the key policy areas for the EU and policies on integration shall not exclude education as a particular and primary field of socialisation. Regarding local voices, IDEE is based upon the citizens panel (CP) that is a method of direct participatory democracy, a tool of empowerment, and a method of research. As Huttova summarised, the key recommendations from the CP are: promote inclusive education, combat school segregation, support multilingualism, develop intercultural competences, empower disenfranchised youth and increase the role of media.  

Following the opening discussion there were four panels organised around the results of the EDUMIGROM project’s comparative surveys and qualitative fieldwork in multiethnic communities. Project team members focused on how children from migrant and Roma backgrounds perform and advance in comparison to their majority peers; how exclusion of students happens in different school systems and against the diverse traditions of interethnic cohabitation;  what the causes and practices are of ethnicised selection and segregation among and within schools; how an inclusive and multicultural education could enhance students’ school performance, increase their opportunities and shape interethnic relations within and outside the school; and how frequent experiences of discrimination and “othering” influence the self-perception and self-esteem of young people and how such experiences contribute to the widespread feeling of devaluation and misrecognition.

The final session of the Conference addressed three main issues – segregation/integration; equality/quality and language education – which would on the one hand draw on as well as evaluate the findings, while on the other suggest strategies pointing toward enhancing social inclusion through education in the different Member States and at the European level. Lilla Farkas highlighted that segregation is prohibited EU-wide however there are blurred definitions given by the member states to define the phenomenon. Furthermore there is not just the lack of widely accepted definition of segregation but also there is a discrepancy between the definition of segregation by sociologists and by legal experts since only the segregation of social class could be proved in law cases whereas race as well as ethnicity play a crucial role in a sociological argument. Farkas also provided the legal definition of segregation that is that practices and not the outcome shall be considered as exclusionary. Viola Zentai, coordinator of the EDUMIGROM project, said that the language of multiculturalism lacks solid foundation in the CEE region, however, an anti-poverty and anti-racist thinking could be a successful and effective replacement of the discourse since they are similar in their structure to multiculturalism and more familiar to the region.  Yvonne Leeman claimed that the traditional thinking of teaching and pedagogy might not be a self-reflexive tradition, consequently there is little chance that revolutionary ideas come from pedagogy. Pedagogy and policy making should move together and enhance each other. Maurice Crul highlighted that similarly to the case of the United States, descendants of migrants have become the majority in several European metropolitan areas. The issue of schooling of minorities and educational integration is placed in a novel perspective in such an environment. He shared his view that future debates on ethnic minorities and education will be increasingly shaped by discussions on how education in such multiethnic urban areas should be addressed rather than by the presently prevailing segregation/integration debate. Reflecting on these issues in the United Kingdom, Ian Law pointed out that racial and ethnic inequalities, racial and ethnic hostilities and patterns of racial and ethnic segregation in education are known, broadly understood and largely they are ineffectively dealt with in political, policy and professional contexts. Yet a post-ethnic, post-racial society is being built as declining racist attitudes, increasing mixed-ethnicity friendship groups amongst young people, increasing ethnic mixing in residential neighbourhoods, and the demand for ethnically mixed schools are evident as positive social trends. These trends are constrained, counteracted and frustrated by the powerful effects of hostile political rhetoric and divisive structural forces, such as the marketisation of education and increasing child poverty. The terms of the political debate about ethnicity and education need to be changed and educational policies and practices need to be built which nurture and facilitate these positive multicultural social trends. Despite the constraints of politics, policy and markets, everyday multiculturalism is a living, powerful social process which will not be denied.


The Ethnic Differences in Education and Diverging Prospects for Urban Youth in an Enlarged Europe (EDUMIGROM) project ran from March 2008 – March 2011, and was funded under the auspices of the 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission. The project brought together ten leading universities and institutes from across Europe for a comparative investigation into how ethnic differences in education contribute to diverging prospects for diverse youth in urban settings. The project was coordinated by the Center for Policy Studies at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary (