Widening access without lowering quality

Higher education has experienced rapidly expanding enrolment worldwide for the past 40 years. This growth will probably continue for the next 20 years, with predictions of 400 million students in 2030, compared with 100 million in 2000.

Is it possible to make this massification more equitable, while ensuring minimum standards of quality?

Different countries and regions of the world are at different stages of higher education development. Gross enrolment ratios depend on a nation’s degree of economic development, social environment, history and policy priorities.

While many countries still struggle to guarantee access to higher education for a predominantly young population, other countries face the challenges of an aging population and-or a decrease of government support.

In the case of Latin America, for example, all countries still struggle with strong social inequality.

Increasing participation and degree attainment at the tertiary level are not only fundamental for forthcoming development but also key to social mobility, particularly for underrepresented groups – disadvantaged socioeconomic sectors, Afro-descendants and indigenous people.

Growing enrolment

There has been progress in the Latin American region in terms of student enrolments, growing from 1.6 million students in 1970 to 20 million in 2009. The gross enrolment ratio is around 30% in the region, indicating that there is yet room for further growth. In addition, growth remains uneven, mainly favouring certain segments of the population.

The funding sources of higher education – governments, students and families or for-profit ventures – have a strong influence on the quality provided. For example, there are many concerns regarding higher education quality when it is focused on financial return.

Unfortunately, the appetite for short-term financial gain often distracts attention from long-term planning, leading to a lack of investment in infrastructure, faculty qualifications and programme stability, thus jeopardising quality.

Additionally, although the for-profit sector has played an important “demand-absorbing” role, these institutions are often given too much latitude by national authorities for the quality of services they provide.

Success for all

Finally, massification inevitably presents the challenge of teaching a more diverse group, increasing the share of students with substantial gaps in their previous education. Higher education institutions must develop specific programmes to guarantee not only the access but the potential success of every student, reducing failure and drop-out rates. This must be done without compromising the quality of the final degree awarded.

Countries must implement policies that provide access to education for socially and economically disadvantaged sectors; that establish and ensure robust quality assurance and monitoring processes; and create a framework to encourage institutional diversity and innovative, equitable funding mechanisms.

It is difficult to imagine a comprehensive solution, but each different country must try to find a good balance between funding, access and quality in this complicated wrangle. A long-term, sustainable solution for the growth of the higher education sector is mandatory for the economic and social stability of any nation.

Marcelo Knobel is professor at the Instituto de Física Gleb Wataghin, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, or Unicamp, Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education, number 80, Spring 2015.