The central questions addressed in this paper are the following: (1) In the context of the (European Union) EU’s goal of severing the link between social class background and higher education participation, what progress has been made in widening access over the past two decades? (2) Has the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) helped EU countries to harmonize their policy and practice in relation to widening access to higher education? (3) What patterns of social stratification are evident in the institutional architecture of higher education across Europe, and how is this reflected in approaches to widening access? The paper begins with a brief review of the OMC, the mechanism used to harmonize social policy across Europe. In relation to higher education, the soft governance approach of the OMC is envisaged as the means of achieving the social inclusion goals of the Bologna Process. Data from Eurostat and the Eurostudent survey are used to analyse levels of higher education participation and differences relating to socio-economic status across Europe. The data demonstrate that access to higher education is strongly influenced by parental level of education and that higher education confers labour market advantages in all European countries. Four institutional case studies are then presented, drawn from different countries and higher education sectors. These case studies illustrate institutional stratification within each country, whereby students in highly selective institutions are more likely to come from socially advantaged backgrounds, whereas students in newer, vocationally orientated institutions are more likely to come from less socially advantaged backgrounds. The paper concludes by arguing that the OMC has been only moderately effective in promoting widening access for under-represented groups, since in the field of higher education there is lack of accord between the policy priorities of the EU and individual member states. Financial retrenchment across Europe is likely to have a negative impact on opportunities for under-represented groups in higher education.

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