A need to address the ladders into tertiary education

An estimated 250 million children in the world cannot read and write. It will be the 22nd century by the time these numbers approach zero. Rightfully so, access to primary and secondary education remains one of the major global challenges of the 21st century.

However, as a delegate at the recent African Higher Education Summit put it, unless we also address the ladders into tertiary education for all learners, extending access to primary education will be like “building a pyramid without a roof”.

The evidence suggests the march to greater participation in higher education is inexorable across the world. But the pace of this march varies from gallop to crawl depending on who you are and where you are from.

The danger is that by the time the majority of those from the most marginalised backgrounds enter higher education across the world, if indeed this ever happens, the threshold required to participate in the knowledge economies of the future will have moved up far beyond degree level.

Access and equity in higher education should be seen as an equally important grand challenge for the 21st century as participation further down the system. This is not the case, however. There are many working diligently inside and outside institutions within higher education to extend access and do this equitably. But they remain disparate both within and across countries.

If, as higher education expands, it is to be done more equitably then these individuals and organisations need to connect together and develop a strategy to propel equity up institutional, national and global policy agendas.

Advocacy for access

The Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, initiative is an attempt to develop this strategy and give the pyramid a roof.

Stemming from the World Congress on Access to Post-Secondary Education in Montreal in October 2013, which brought together over 40 countries to explore the way forward for access to higher education globally, GAPS is an alliance of organisations from across the world working together to become a vehicle both for advocacy and action for the worldwide access community.

There should be three essential ingredients to any global access strategy. Firstly, improve the data regarding inequalities in higher education participation. While data is collected on a pan-country basis by a number of organisations, all countries are not covered.

Nor is information being systematically assembled on the differing nature of inequality – not just by socio-economic group or gender, but by ethnicity, religious affiliation, language, disability etc. To establish the importance of extending equity it is crucial that we have a better understanding of what the problem actually is.

The ‘Drawing the Global Access Map’ study is led by GAPS with support from Pearson PLC and the University of Newcastle, Australia. It aims to improve our understanding of the access challenge. This study will consist of a survey of over 50 countries and case studies of six and will report at the end of 2015.

Student voices

Secondly, the voice of students needs to come to the fore. We have seen in Germany how students can drive greater equity, as their actions forced the German government to abolish tuition fees in 2014.

Global efforts to extend equity need more than politically organised student movements though. There has to be systematic work to capture the examples of students who have prospered in a range of ways through higher education, which can convince those (particularly policy-makers) less inclined to believe in the merits of access of its power. GAPS is placing students at the heart of its work.

Finally, those outside of higher education have to be engaged if access to higher education is ever to be seen as a global challenge of comparative importance to extending primary and secondary educational participation.

NGOs, employers, foundations and policy-makers sit on a spectrum, from those who may share a common commitment to greater equity in the development of knowledge societies but are operating in a different field, to those who are disengaged entirely from the question. None should be out of bounds where efforts to collaborate and connect are concerned.

The difference that can be made when foundations and employers become involved with access and equity in higher education work is clear. Look at the impact that the Mastercard Foundation is having in Africa with its US$500 million scholarship programme or the work of Petronas in Malaysia and its scholarship programme which has supported nearly 20,000 students in tertiary education.

GAPS will be having its second global conference in Malaysia hosted by Sunway University in October 2015. This event, entitled ‘Meeting the global challenge of building equitable knowledge economies’ will aim to develop precisely the dialogue that can bring those outside of higher education into the higher education equity arena.

A belief in the moral virtues of greater equity in participation in higher education is important. It is the source from which energy and commitment to this cause is drawn.

However, on its own it is not enough. We need a strategy too. Otherwise inequity in higher education participation will be another grand challenge we fail to meet.

Dr Graeme Atherton is Chair of the Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, initiative.