Moving access from the margins to the mainstream

What is the common denominator that binds universities and university systems across the world? It is not research excellence, good teaching or a social mission – it is unequal access.

From the richest to the poorest countries, who participates in higher education is defined by inequalities of social background. It is dominated by those with wealth and power. This must and will have to change.

For the first time the UN has recognised inequality in access to tertiary education as a driver of poverty, and inequality globally in its new Global Goals. The ambitions for expansion of higher education that the majority of governments from the developing and developed world hold cannot be achieved unless higher education can accommodate very different learners.

However, access remains an issue shunted to the sidelines – the concern of only a dedicated few university leaders, usually from marginalised backgrounds themselves, and way behind research and even teaching in the minds of most academics.

“Meeting the Global Challenge of Building Equitable Knowledge Economies”, hosted at Sunway University, Malaysia, this week is the only global conference this year specifically on access and equity in higher education. Convened by the Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, initiative, it aims to kickstart the journey of access and equity from the margins to the mainstream.

Malaysia is a unique place to start this journey, as a society that has a deep commitment to higher education and higher education expansion. The event features global bodies, such as the World Bank and UNESCO, as well as the opportunity to explore the major issues to be overcome if higher education is to be more equitable.

These include: the role of private providers, transnational education and online learning; how to adapt the academy to support indigenous learners; what the university of the 21st century will look like, as well as how to tackle graduate unemployment and higher education access for those with disabilities.

A catalyst for action

It will also address the question of responsibility. Who should be the ones leading efforts to make higher education more equitable? It is very nice that access to university now features in the Global Goals, but unless organisations, and individuals, take action to achieve these goals then any impact will be more cosmetic than real.

Just another conference, though, will not change the lives of learners from marginalised communities across the world. It has to be a catalyst for action and advocacy.

GAPS Kuala Lumpur 2015 is a crucial opportunity to start to develop an agenda that those in the access community can pursue vigorously with policy-makers and leaders in their own countries and which can bring those into the access community who at present are not engaged with it.

Building such an agenda will not be straightforward. We are undertaking research at present to map globally the data available on access to higher education. It is illustrating clearly that who access should be for is defined locally not globally. We lack a common language where access is concerned. Even the term itself is better understood as equity and diversity, depending on where you are, and political imperatives often push the very concept of any agenda.

While the UN has now perceived that there is a problem, do individual governments?

As important as asking such questions is, we cannot shy away in Kuala Lumpur this week from looking for solutions, nor from being bold in our ideas. A further problem with the sidelining of access as an issue is the impact it has on those who may have ideas for change, because they feel it is not their place to propose ambitious and bold proposals.

To start this process here are four ideas to inform the global access agenda:
  • • First, a global equity index should be created to compare progress across countries in higher education participation by social background, published annually and independently. Data drives change and unless we start to show where success and failure is happening we will not move policy-makers.

  • • Second, online learning, transnational and private higher education should all be strongly incentivised to expand systems which create a ‘mixed economy’ higher education. We are not going to bring tens of millions into higher education through publicly funded face-to-face teaching.

  • • Third, governments should establish 'access agreements' with higher education institutions that tie progress in equity to funding and incentivise those institutions to work with schools in their own and other countries to make access more equitable. The struggles that schools face to educate all children adequately are at the heart of the global access challenge, but these struggles are also used as an excuse by universities to explain inequalities in participation. Universities need to take responsibility too.

  • • Fourth, every country in the world should have national targets for equitable access to higher education by 2030 and a national strategy to meet them, which it reports on annually.
Finally, no learner in the poorest 20% of the population in any country should have to pay for higher education. Free higher education for all would be good, but might not work for many countries with other financial commitments across health, education and welfare. But it should be free for some.

The ideas above are ambitious. Maybe too ambitious and unworkable. Others to replace them may be better. The important thing is that they have to create bold, global but achievable aims that can bring broad coalitions of organisations from across sectors behind them. This is the challenge the GAPS Kuala Lumpur 2015 Conference faces – will it rise to it?

Dr Graeme Atherton is chair of the Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, initiative. The GAPS Kuala Lumpur 2015 Conference takes place from 5-8 October.


I couldn't agree more. It took a long time for me to really make my mind up about the issue of access to higher education. However I realise now that regardless of the financial costs to society in the short term, there is a great benefit in the long term. Therefore governments should do all they can to increase access to higher education. More countries should aim to emulate the German model.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page