Equal participation is a key challenge in large systems

An increase in higher education enrolment provides benefits to societies generally but rapid expansion has also put pressure on national budgets and raised concerns in providing quality, equity and access.

In particular, the world’s largest higher education systems by student numbers have struggled to address the challenge of ensuring access to all socio-economic groups as university education broadens, according to experts at the British Council’s Going Global conference.

Nearly a quarter of young people across the world now enrol in further or higher education courses and two thirds of them study in the nine countries with large systems – Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, the UK and the US – according to the report Managing Large Systems, published by the British Council in collaboration with the World Bank and UNESCO and released at the conference on 1 June.

“We are in the middle of the greatest expansion in higher education throughout the world. A more intelligent world is emerging,” said Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Marginson noted that even a 1% rise per year in gross enrolment ratios meant a 20% rise over 20 years and growth is apparent in almost every country regardless of differences in economic systems.

And growth is likely to continue. Even when the proportion of students who go on to higher education every year reaches 50% of school leavers “it will not stop there, it will just keep increasing”, Marginson told the conference.

But he told the conference that large systems also faced massive challenges of coordination, and decisions on research breadth or specialisation. In particular, he said, “no one has been able to achieve a [socially] representative system”.

“It is hard to ensure equality,” Marginson said. As systems expand, “proportionality falls short of hopes”.

“It is not just a question of [higher education] access but access to lead institutions.”

Social inclusion

The report said that the large system countries cite repeated problems in implementing widening participation policies, either because of ineffective implementation or through lack of political will.

“Key concerns in countries either implementing or desiring to implement affirmative action are two-fold: how to determine the degree to which a participant is disadvantaged; and how to fairly subsidise and facilitate their access to education, which is often partly beyond state control in the case of private sector provision,” the report said.

Large systems face particular problems with massification, including how to fund that growth. For example, funding expansion by increasing the cost to the student and their families through tuition fees, in the cases of countries where there are very economically vulnerable populations, “may prohibit positive economic and social benefits of higher education as a vehicle for social mobility”, the report notes.

Even in more affluent large system nations such as the US and the UK, higher tuition fees and less government support “has been met with concerns about affordability”, the report said.

Elsewhere, the private sector – particularly institutions offering vocational courses – has catered to growing demand but low quality is a problem which has a knock-on effect on employability of already disadvantaged social groups.

Economic growth

Growth of higher education in the ‘super large’ systems has been propelled by growth in the middle-class population, particularly in urban areas. In countries like Indonesia and China, eventually the process of growth spreads to poorer students, according to the report.

“It is easy to secure equity when economic growth is high,” said Marginson, particularly in the emerging economies, compared to the US and UK, “where opportunities are more rigid”.

In the US rising higher education costs being borne by students are undercutting equality, he said.

India and China struggle with similar problems – providing greater access for non-traditional students and maintaining quality during a period of fast growth. Both countries see an urban-rural divide in university access, particularly in China, Marginson said.

Renato Pedrosa, an associate professor at the Institute of Geosciences, University of Campinas, Brazil, said his country had one of the most unequal higher education systems in Latin America, even compared to poorer countries, in part because of a lack of a middle class.

As secondary education access grew in the 1990s, growth in higher education demand was partly met by private institutions opening up during periods of high economic growth. But, Pedrosa said, it was mainly the poorer people going into the private system. “So clearly there was a need to develop social inclusion policies.”

With a national priority to improve access, much of the growth in higher education enrolments has been due to the inclusion of non-traditional students. Nonetheless the private fee-paying sector dominates with three quarters of all enrolments.

Because of an economic slump there has been a reduction in the expansion of the private system in the last year. “But the challenge is that we will still have a lot of poor people in the poor quality private system,” Pedrosa said. “Employability will be an issue because we now have a lot of people with higher education degrees and the economy is stagnating.”

Affirmative action

Affirmative action in Brazil is seen by many as a success. A 2012 law requires half of all higher education places to be allocated to students from the public secondary school system. Previously these represented just 15% of university enrolments. A significant proportion of this quota is allocated to black and indigenous Brazilians.

Indonesia has implemented Bidik Misi, a full scholarship programme for good performance in the last year of secondary school. It expanded from 19,444 scholarships in 2010 to 244,799 in 2013. The government also regulates tuition fees: institutions are not allowed to collect more than 30% of their budget from students as fees.

Director of the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education in New Delhi, Professor NV Varghese noted that the expansion of India’s higher education took place at the same time as socio-economic disparities were increasing. The country operates a quota system in public universities for disadvantaged groups, but “how a quota system will help reduce inequalities is hard to see”, he said, referring to huge demand.

Shen Yang, minister counsellor for education at the Chinese Embassy in London, said affirmative action policies apply in the poorer western part of China. “We do need to keep many of the affirmative actions, particularly for the regions. We will also improve the quality of higher education resources in these less developed regions,” he told the conference.