Skip to main content

Incorporating empathy into higher education

10 Jul 2024 | Svea Kučinić Following the European Access Network’s New Beginnings for European Access - Designing Equity, Transitions and Student Success Conference in Dundee, Scotland, Svea Kučinić (University of Zagreb, Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Sciences) reflects on incorporating empathy into higher education.

I have recently had the pleasure of presenting the Student Support and Career Development Centre, operating as a part of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Sciences, at the New Beginnings for European Access - Designing Equity, Transitions and Student Success Conference organised by the European Access Network. 

The presentation, titled “Incorporating Empathy into Higher Education” was focused on showcasing how we use the Student Support and Career Development Centre to enhance diversity by shifting the focus to the social dimension of higher education as scaffolding for students from vulnerable, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. While a student support centre is hardly a novel or revolutionary idea, it is the motivation behind it that I will be focusing on in this piece. 


Thinking back on my own university experience, I asked myself which elements of my own learning process stayed with me the longest or enabled me to be fully engaged with the subject matter. I inevitably kept coming back to the lecturer-learner relationships which were rich in empathy, as well as a learning context/environment which saw me as more than just a student, but rather as a human being with complex life experiences which were indelibly connected to my perception of the world, the 'filters' that coloured my learning, and the qualities I brought to my future profession.  

It is precisely that awareness that learning does not happen in a vacuum but rather in an intricate web of interpersonal and intrapersonal processes that motivates the work of the Student Support and Career Development Centre. 

Practice what we teach

Thinking about the Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Sciences, at which I work and which offers three study programmes, all in the domain of helping professions, it is quite evident that we cannot teach inclusion and empathy as the basic tenets of the professions we train our students for without practicing what we teach. If we neglect to consciously integrate what Phillip Jackson called “the hidden curriculum” into our teaching - ie we ignore the fact that how we teach is as important as what we teach – we risk sacrificing exactly the elements of teaching which hold the power to help our learners connect the content of their lessons to their lives and the communities in which they live. 

In other words, if we do not practice what we preach in direct contact with our students, we cannot expect them to truly take on the lessons we are trying to impart.  

Universal design

While in my presentation empathy in higher education was framed primarily through the lens of the Student Support and Career Development Centre and its role in widening access for and supporting the success of students from vulnerable, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, it should, however, be considered and applied in a wider context. 

That is to say, it should not be considered and used only as a case-to-case or group-specific accommodation tactic. Rather, we should think of it as a form of universal design – a feature that benefits everyone, even if not everyone needs it to the same extent at different points in time and in specific settings. 

Integrating empathy into higher education can take many forms. In our Student Support and Career Development Centre, we aim to do so by offering support to students in the areas of academic skills, career management skills and mental health self-care via free-of-charge lectures, workshops, film nights, Q&As, peer mentoring and psychotherapy. 

All the while, we strive to have inclusion, in its expanded and comprehensive form that goes beyond “just” disability, as the cornerstone of all that we do. However, incorporating empathy into higher education doesn’t have to be (and in my opinion, shouldn’t be) limited only to organisationally complex forms such as support units or centres. Neither should it be delegated and dislocated to such units exclusively, as if to send a message “this is the (only) place you come to for a little bit of empathy”. It should also not be a feature talked about and implemented only in departments or faculties in the fields of humanities or social sciences, just because it might seem more closely related to our areas of research or the future professions of our students. 

Rather, it would be useful to also explore where in our teaching, mentoring, and day-to-day contact with our students exist those moments that offer us the opportunity to convey to them that we see them as more than just one aspect of their identity or their role, thus modelling for them what theory looks like when blended with humanity and applied in practice. I truly believe that we can do so while maintaining our academic standards and trusting our students will rise to them. In fact, a point could be made that our academic standards could be improved and enriched if empathy were a core value of our system.  


Svea Kučinić is an Assistant at the University of Zagreb, Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Sciences, Department of Inclusive Education and Rehabilitation, Croatia. Her professional interests are an intersectional approach to educational rehabilitation and the social dimension of higher education. She is a 3rd year trainee of Gestalt psychotherapy. 

Improve student belonging in your institution with our Change Impact Programme 

Our refreshed Building Belonging Change Impact programme now features additional access to a fully interactive framework for student needs. Our programme is offered entirely online, blending live expert-led workshops with accompanying digital content to take at your own pace. Find out more.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter