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Katja Urbatsch: helping working-class children get into higher education

© arbeiterKind.de

07 November 2019

For the next generation of children from academic families, the educational pathway is generally clearly laid out: pretty much all roads lead to university. In the case of non-academics, on the other hand, fewer than one in three children makes it to university. Katja Urbatsch knows from her own experience the obstacles you have to overcome as the first in the family to start and complete a course of study. It was her personal experience of university which motivated her to set up ArbeiterKind.de in 2008. The online project has since developed into a nationwide network of volunteers who support children from non-academic families all the way through to BA and MA degree level.

Name:
Katja Urbatsch

Age:
40

Occupation:
Social entrepreneur, founder and managing director of ArbeiterKind.de

Website:
www.arbeiterkind.de

What is ArbeiterKind.de?
ArbeiterKind.de is the largest non-profit organisation in Germany which supports first-generation students. The aim of ArbeiterKind.de is to help every individual, regardless of social background, to progress through higher education, always assuming that they have ability to do so.

How did the idea come about?
I was the first in my family to graduate from university. When I started studying, I often felt like I wasn't in the right place. I gradually realised there was a difference between students like me, whose parents hadn’t been through higher education, and the children of academic parents. The first lightbulb moment was when I had to complete my first assignment. I asked a fellow student for advice, because I didn't know what it was supposed to look like. She then told me that her father had helped her write her own assignment. There was no-one in my family who could have supported me. So, in 2008 I came up with the idea of creating an Internet portal to provide information specifically for students from families without a tradition of university attendance. This has now evolved into an organisation with 6,000 volunteers involved in local groups all over Germany.

"In non-academic families just 27 out of 100 children will make the leap to university."

Katja Urbatsch, managing director of ArbeiterKind.de

The world needs ArbeiterKind.de because ...
... your social origin still determines the educational path you take. Of 100 children from families with university-educated parents, the statistics show that 79 will go to university. For non-academic families, according to a recent study by the German Centre for Higher Education and Science Research (DZHW) on university attendance in Germany published on 7 May 2018, just 27 out of 100 children will make the leap to university. Children of academically-minded parents are still three times more likely to go to university than children whose parents didn’t go to college.

ArbeiterKind.de was originally launched just as an online platform but soon developed into a real-life network of volunteers. How did that happen?
Since its launch, ArbeiterKind.de has very quickly built up a large community via the online platform. More than 14,000 people who can offer fast and direct help are registered with ArbeiterKind.de's online network. But what the people seeking advice were missing was the chance to talk to someone face-to-face. What’s more, the local group activities thrive on personal contact and make it possible, for example, to organise school visits. The volunteers were happy to network and share their knowledge and experience. In this way, the personal network has grown to 80 groups nationwide.

What specific form does the support take?
ArbeiterKind.de volunteers offer local support in local groups. They hold consultations, organise regular open meetings and provide information during visits to schools and at trade fairs and university events. The volunteers are usually the first in their family to be studying or to have studied, and they call on their own educational history to inspire confidence in others. One particularly authentic way they can help is as role models. The questions of the people seeking advice relate to all facets of a course of study and the organisation and financing of university courses. ArbeiterKind.de offers support up to the point when students from non-academic backgrounds start work, as, unlike the children of university-educated parents, they can’t rely on a family network to opens doors when they make the transition into working life. A lot of important information is also available in easily comprehensible form on the website. Users of the service can also call an information hotline four days a week. The online community with its volunteer supporters that I mentioned earlier can provide fast and unbureaucratic help.

ArbeiterKind.de has now been around for eleven years now. Has anything changed in society since then?
A lot has been happening in the world of education, especially since the shockingly poor PISA results in 2000. The school system has been reformed, and the strictly tripartite school model has become more flexible and permeable. Comprehensive schools, community schools and integrated secondary schools have been introduced, with the effect that school students can now make decisions about going to university later in their school career. There’s now a wider range of options for getting to university – for example, even if you don’t have a university entrance qualification, you can still get a place if certain conditions are met. Overall, there have been a lot of improvements, but it’s still far from easy to get into higher education. How the pathway to education unfolds still often depends on happenstance and personal support.

"The lack of clarity about how it’s all going to be funded also puts many young people off studying."

Katja Urbatsch, managing director of ArbeiterKind.de

What are the biggest hurdles to overcome as the first person in a family to go to university?
Many people from families without a tradition of university attendance don’t have the confidence to go to university, don’t know exactly what to expect or how a course of study is structured or what it actually means to work toward a degree. There’s no experience to call on in their own social environment and no-one to answer their questions. The lack of clarity about how it’s all going to be funded also puts many young people off studying. All too few people know about the available funding options such as government grants and loans or bursaries. People don't want to get into debt; instead, they mostly want to quickly get a job and earn money.

Which digital product has yet to be invented?
A courage amplifier for young people to helps them to achieve their potential.

And which products can you do without?
I think smart watches are a bit over the top. A mobile phone and a laptop are enough for me.

Which technical application will always remain a mystery for you?
The queues for service hotlines.

Which four apps are essential for you to get through the day?
In the morning I look at the weather app, and I read Spiegel Online over breakfast. I travel a lot for ArbeiterKind.de, so the railway app DB Navigator is my faithful friend, and I use the coach.me app to encourage me to do positive things like meditate, exercise and get enough sleep.

When were you last offline for 24 hours?
Oh, that’s a good question. I’m afraid to say I think it was before I had an Internet-enabled smart phone.

A holiday without Wi-Fi: Is that a dream or a nightmare?
Neither, but I use the Internet in my spare time for guided meditations or to download books. That's why I like Wi-Fi. What’s more important to me is to distinguish between work and leisure time.

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