Time for a global movement for higher education access

It is almost universally accepted that participation in higher education across the world will grow exponentially in the next 20 years. The OECD predicts that there will be more than 400 million students in tertiary education by 2030. What is less clear is who these students will be, what backgrounds they will come from and whether the historical patterns of inequality in higher education participation will be in any way reduced by this expansion or will worsen.

A new global movement dedicated to trying to ensure that this expansion leads to a reduction and not an increase in inequality was launched in Montreal last week.

The first European Access Network World Congress on Access to Post-secondary Education saw more than 200 delegates from over 30 countries gather to shape an agenda that will address global inequities in higher education access and success.

The European Access Network, or EAN, has been working to promote greater access to higher education in Europe for more than 20 years and, with support from the Lumina Foundation and the Council for Opportunity in Education in the United States, it is now turning its attention to the global stage.

The World Congress, held in Montreal from 7-10 October, aims to combine advocacy, research and the formation of global communities of practice addressing the most challenging questions in higher education participation, with a series of bi-annual global events bringing together people from across sectors to think innovatively about how the worldwide growth in higher education can benefit all social groups.

At the centre of the movement is the voice and work of students. The World Congress has already built a group of more than 60 World Congress Student and Youth Ambassadors in 30 countries.

Projects to widen access to higher education, designed and led by students themselves, is a key part of the work of the congress.

Local definitions

Why is the World Congress necessary, though? One of the big issues obvious in Montreal was that access to post-secondary education is ‘locally defined’.

Who is excluded and how they are excluded differ across countries and continents. The reasons why people are excluded are grounded in historical, cultural and social systems unique to individual countries and continents.

Differences in higher education participation by different socio-economic groups do act as a form of common denominator. Across all countries, people have a much higher chance of attending higher education if they come from a higher socio-economic group, and that includes people in countries where society itself is more equal, such as Scandinavia or Australia.

But the question of access cannot just be reduced to socio-economic group. For many countries ethnicity, indigenous status, rurality and religion are all more important sources of inequality in higher education participation.

What inequality in access to higher education means is inherently local, it cannot, however, be met by purely local solutions anymore.

The strapline for the first World Congress event was “Connecting the Unconnected”. It captures the way in which a globalised 21st century world operates. We now live in what sociologist Manuel Castells first described as a network society, where it is not possible to separate the local issue from the global web in which it sits. Access to post-secondary education is no exception.

Why a student from a lower socio-economic background in England, for example, is excluded from higher education is not due just to what is happening in England. A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, featured recently in University World News showed that the trebling of tuition fees in 2011 had been responsible for a decline of over 40% in higher education participation by part-time students.

Tuition fees were increased as part of the reduction in government spending needed to close the UK’s huge budget deficit. The deficit was caused in large part by the worldwide recession of recent years.


The World Congress is the mechanism that allows those involved in access to higher education to connect across the world to find the global solutions to their local problems.

It may well be that the solutions to declining part-time participation in England are as likely to be found in innovative practice in South America or in the United States, where there has long been a large difference between the cost of higher education and the incomes of the poor, as in England itself.

The World Congress is also a vehicle that allows the 'access to post-secondary education community' to engage with organisations in the private and public sector that work across countries shaping the context in which higher education participation happens. Transnational corporations, global NGOs, and pan-state bodies create the framework in which the 21st century world operates.

In the inter-connected world you have to have a presence on the global stage to ensure an issue gets heard and to be able to build a coalition that goes beyond a core constituency – in this case higher education institutions.

Inequality in access has always been about more than just higher education. It is shaped by what schools, governments and employers do as much as by what universities do.

The real test for the World Congress will be whether it can make access to higher education matter as much to these groups as it does to the delegates who gathered in Montreal last week.

* Dr Graeme Atherton is chair of the European Access Network World Congress on Access to Post-secondary Education, which was held from 7-10 October in Montreal.