Access to higher education must be a global priority

The giants of the access movement are growing old and are beginning to retire. It is time for the next generation to take responsibility for the promotion and proliferation of post-secondary education as a universal opportunity, to take up the battle for education as a public good, a public responsibility and an inalienable human right.

The evidence at two major events in international education recently showed that the student movement is ready and able to take up the challenge.

Over the past decades, as higher education in Europe moved from an elite privilege to a mass phenomenon, institutions and governments strained to radically alter their admissions statistics. But access to higher education still largely remains something for the upper and middle echelons of society.

The next step – from mass to universal higher education – requires imagination, vision and, most importantly, bravery from leaders of institutions and governments. Simply speaking, universities can no longer afford to act like elite institutions, and governments can no longer allow them to.

Major events in Thailand and Canada

During September and October, two events took place on opposite sides of the world, with remarkable alignment between their outcomes and the sense of purpose of their participants.

In Chiang Mai in Thailand, the third Asia Europe Education Workshop was organised around the theme “Beyond the Academic Benchmark – Societal excellence in higher education” by the Asia-Europe Foundation. Shortly after this, in Montreal in Canada, the European Access Network organised the first World Congress on Access to Post-secondary Education.

In Thailand, the small and carefully selected group of leaders of academia and industry, researchers and students from Asia and Europe discussed common challenges for reaching 'societal excellence' – a term used to encompass everything from access and support to employability and civic responsibilities of graduates.

These issues are made all the more challenging in the face of intense international competition between countries and universities and at a time when the world media gives so much credence to the academic rankings of universities.

How can countries and universities become leaders in social responsibility while every pressure is put on them to produce tiny numbers of specialist graduates?

In Montreal, there was a much larger gathering drawn from the access movement globally engaged in deep debate on how post-secondary education can become a real prospect for as many people in the world as possible. This staggeringly broad agenda covered issues from financial mechanisms and recruitment strategies to science in society for children and the recurring issue of gender equality in higher education.

Need for universal social support

It is clear to us in the European Students’ Union, or ESU, that universal social support is the only effective measure to guarantee equity. Complexity in funding and incentive systems for admissions are not a virtue.

Yes, this will mean that some who may not objectively need financial support will receive it, as will those who will stretch every cent – but to ensure that the financial barrier and debt aversion are eliminated from the minds of those who do not currently attend higher education, a universal system is essential.

It is lamentable that Denmark, which until recently had an effective system along these lines, is now attempting to move away from it.

At both of the meetings, the student representatives present exemplified one of the most curious aspects of the organised student movement. Students may well be the only global pressure group that is at its most vocal on behalf of those who are not its members.

When student representatives speak, those at the forefront of our minds are not those we actually represent, but those whom we ought to represent. This is so on most issues, be they quality of education, internationalisation or, most obviously, access to education.

Consider the intriguing example of universities in Thailand, which have a state-mandated and quality assured obligation to excel in their social responsibilities, and compare that with the hard-nosed, corporate motivations of private, for-profit universities in the United States.

Why does universal higher education allow such discriminatory practices as have been the hallmark of the sector for generations – exclusively grade-point admissions and image-conscious feeder schools to name just two – to continue?

Time for bravery in achieving access

Higher education has changed. This is the age of mass higher education. It will soon be the age of universal higher education, and universities must no longer act as if they are still inaccessible, ivory tower bastions of the elite and only the elite.

The argument that students somehow benefit from the futile exercise of cost-sharing is a political and ideological one – not an evidence-based one. In the words of Elisabeth Gehrke, ESU’s vice chair, the argument that universal higher education is a luxury that we cannot afford is an even more deeply political statement when trillions are expended on defence, espionage and chemical weaponry.

The coming age of semi-formal regional and global networks being the most powerful international organisations in the world makes the ongoing work towards an ASEAN – Association of South East Asian Nations – economic community one of the most exciting global cooperation projects in the world to observe from the outside.

And when the next World Congress takes place, in Malaysia in 2015, it is hoped that both the Thai sense of responsibility and the European Access Network sense of activism and mobilisation will have made the access movement all the more powerful and relevant.

The student movement is not afraid of idealism and wears the label, often used as an accusation, as a badge of pride. We are idealistic, we are ambitious, we are brave and we will insist on the future of education being a universal right.

The access movement will be in safe hands.

* Aengus Ó Maoláin is equality coordinator of the European Students’ Union.