Call for improved access to HE in the Commonwealth

The 18th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers held in Mauritius last week saw the launch of a pan-Commonwealth student body and a call for governments to tackle lack of access to higher education, which is entrenching inequalities in society.

Students from around the 54-country Commonwealth formed the Pan-Commonwealth Students Association following a four-day Youth Forum alongside the ministers’ conference, or 18CCEM, which was held from 27-30 August on the Indian Ocean island.

The theme of the ministers’ gathering was “Education in the Commonwealth: Bridging the gap as we accelerate towards internationally agreed goals”.

Among four meetings held parallel to 18CCEM was the Post-secondary and Higher Education Leaders' Forum convened by the 500-member Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU, in partnership with the Mauritius government and the University of Mauritius.

It called on post-secondary education to “feature prominently in any international development objectives established to succeed the Millennium Development Goals”. Education ministers agreed to set up a working group to advise on new goals to follow the MDGs after 2015.

According to a statement, ACU Deputy Secretary General Dr John Kirkland told the ministers that including post-secondary education in post-MDG goals was a “natural step in the process that was started 15 years ago.

“It would be a tragedy if governments, after setting out to improve access for all at primary level, then decided that their aspirations for disadvantaged groups only extended to the ages of seven or 11.”

Noting that many Commonwealth countries had made huge strides in ensuring access to primary and secondary education, the ACU forum agreed that the translation rate to higher education remained low. Some countries cited lack of funds and facilities as major obstacles.

In some countries, post-secondary systems were stretched far beyond capacity despite efforts made by institutions to expand. Growing further would require governments to invest more in the sector.

Nigeria was cited as an example, where despite massive expansion of facilities, only one in five of some 1.5 million qualified applications secures a place in higher education each year.

What message would it convey to the generation of children who have entered formal education, that after school “we are happy to tolerate exclusion?” asked Dorothy Garland, director of professional networks at the the ACU.

The forum, attended by 130 delegates from 25 Commonwealth countries, asked member states to adopt targets for increased participation in post-secondary education and to table a progress report at the next ministers' meeting for debate.

“Member governments should actively identify priority groups, and publish strategies to increase participation, where necessary providing institutions with the appropriate resources – both financial and human – to enhance access,” said Garland.

One way to achieve increased participation, the forum pointed out, was to diversity from traditional learning methods and expand open and distance education as part of a “blended portfolio of opportunities, which students can match to their own skill and employment needs,” said the ACU statement.

At the same time, quality must not be compromised and career guidance and efforts to produce employable graduates must be enhanced.

The ACU also called for “designated funds to develop staff working in the sector, and more progress towards access for excluded groups.

“Recognising that governments alone cannot meet expanding demand for post-secondary education, delegates proposed a range of approaches, including working more collaboratively with the private sector,” said the ACU statement.

The Pan-Commonwealth Student Associations' aim is to enable student leaders from across the Commonwealth to shape post-secondary education thinking and decisions. Its launch was the culmination of years of consultation following a decision to form a student body taken at the previous Youth Forum in Malaysia in 2009.

Student participation in shaping higher education in member countries ranked high on the 18CCEM agenda.

Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba said an organised youth voice would facilitate student access to deliberations and policy outcomes in education.

“We in the Commonwealth are taking bold steps to embrace the vast potential in our young people. We have sought to listen to them and are working together to implement the priorities they have emphasised.”

A steering committee of student representatives from all four Commonwealth regions was elected last week and will take forward a mandate to set the association agenda.

The chair is Stanley Njoroge from Kenya, who saluted his fellow students for their hard work in making the Pan-Commonwealth Students Association a reality. “You have made your flags proud,” he said.