Eddie Denessen
Eddie Denessen

Reading tip of the month: '1988: Equal opportunities for Eddie Denessen'

First-generation student Eddie Denessen, freshman of pedagogy in 1988, discovers the importance of equal opportunities as he progresses through his studies. As a professor, he is now considered a specialist on the subject. We apply his insights to himself and Radboud University.

Children of low-educated parents have fewer opportunities  

"I was the first in our family to go to university. My father was the son of a baker in our village, Reuver. He worked as a metal grinder in the factory, and later with roof tiles, assembly line work. My mother started young as a butcher's maid and worked in butchery her whole life. I don't feel that much emancipated by university, it was logical after high school that I would go to college. Children of low-educated parents have not been an exception at university since the 1960s, but children of highly educated parents are still over-represented." 

Inequality arises from an uneven playing field  

"The father of one of my college friends was an English professor. When I visited his home there, I felt like I stepped into another world: only bookcases and no TV on. Suddenly, I saw a different living environment. My interest was further sparked by lectures in sociology of education on the reproduction of inequality. I wanted to know more about that and eventually that became my career.   

Unequal educational opportunities arise from unequal starting positions. It starts with parents who may or may not read to their young children. It's about the level of pressure, support and interference of parents in learning. And then you see an uneven playing field. Higher-educated parents are more likely to check whether their children are doing homework and turn to homework help and tutoring if they fail. With lower-educated parents, the urgency to drive their children's careers is less felt or they lack the opportunities. My parents were not involved in my choice of study. They didn't know what studying entailed. I figured everything out on my own." 

Education does not compensate for the uneven playing field, but rather widens the gap    

"It was a discovery during my studies and subsequent research: why does a class very much resemble a highly educated family in terms of interaction patterns and atmosphere? Because it is the highly educated who provide the design of our education. For children of low-educated parents, school is a foreign world; there is a culture gap between home and school. Whenever I went back to my parents for a weekend, I had to do a switch. It's like different identities that you have.   

For students of educated parents, that gap does not exist. Those just walk into university and are familiar with the ways there. They know how to address a professor. Reason for me to try to be approachable for my students, more down to earth. I remember once, as a student, I told a professor that I had been to Paris. He asked what museums I had been to, but I had simply sat in the park. I was looked at scathingly: how dare you go to Paris without visiting a museum! So for me, too, there was always a little bit playing through my head: do I belong here?" 

By holding high expectations, you offer opportunities  

"Even when I started my PhD here, I had doubts about my intellectuality and whether I fit in with a university. Getting a lot of positive feedback and affirmation made me believe in it. Nurturing high expectations is essential, which is just as true at university as at primary school. That is why I have difficulty with selective tracks like an Honours Programme and research master's programmes. That degrades your other education. I think the university should send out the following message to all students: this is the hardest level of education you can achieve in the Netherlands and I challenge you to show your best." 

Provide second chances  

"Radboud University has a relatively large number of first-generation students. But it fulfils that role as an emancipation university by the grace of the supply from vwo schools in its hinterland. It is not that it has a different admissions policy from other universities. To rightfully profile itself as an emancipation university, Radboud University could work towards more intake of older students. Create routes and second-chance courses for people who become interested in an academic education later in life. Providing space for late bloomers, that is also a form of emancipation." 

Emancipation university 

In its strategic plan A Significant Impact, Radboud University explicitly profiles itself as a university that contributes 'to a healthy, free world with equal opportunities for all'. For a long time, the university had an above-average number of first-generation students (students whose parents did not have an academic education). At the turn of the century, Radboud University was the national list leader with the most first-generation students, but in recent years this is no longer the case. In college year 2022-2023, more than half of all first-year students (50.7 per cent) were first-generation students. 

Contact information

This chapter appeared in Honderd jaar Radboud Universiteit in 101 beelden. It is available at any bookstore.