Global HE equity index needed but faces obstacles

Inequity is rife in higher education across poor countries and rich, whatever the economic or political ideology. But while many different aspects of higher education are being measured and ranked, finding a way to measure unequal participation in post-secondary education, even within countries, has so far proved elusive.

A global research initiative – the Global Access Map project – is examining the types of social data on students that are available across the world as a preliminary to devising a global equity index to compare the social composition of the student body within and across countries, the Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, conference heard last week. The equity index is a joint project of GAPS and the university of Newcastle, supported by Pearson.

“We all know that access to post-secondary education is unequal both within and across countries. However, the knowledge base regarding exactly how it is unequal and how this inequality manifests itself is partial,” said Profesor Geoff Whitty, co-director of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle, Australia.

A number of attempts to produce global comparative data on equity “have not fed through in any significant way to the global league tables that dominate higher education today”, he told the conference held in Kuala Lumpur, 5-8 October. This has meant that equity has taken a back seat to other measures of international higher education performance and quality in global rankings.

“Data drives change, and unless we show where success and failure is happening, we will not move policy-makers,” said Dr Graeme Atherton, GAPS conference chair, referring to the importance of measuring equitable participation.

The Global Access Map project, run jointly by GAPS and Australia’s Newcastle University, is examining whether a global education equity index is feasible. It has already gathered some preliminary data on social indicators that affect post-secondary education in 34 countries.

Based on surveys, the preliminary data will include a total of 50 countries by the time the feasibility report is released next month, Atherton said. More detailed case studies involving social background and post-secondary participation in Australia, Colombia, India, South Africa, the United States and United Kingdom will be included.

Challenging task

But it has not been an easy task.

Speaking Tuesday at the conference, Whitty said: “There is limited discussion regarding what metrics and what approach would enable us to develop a comprehensive picture of participation in post-secondary education globally.”

Much existing data on social categories are drawn mainly from countries in the developed world, but, noted Whitty, growth in higher education enrolments in the early part of this century will be in developing countries.

The few equity-based rankings developed so far involve a limited range of countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD, “with the possible consequence that the metrics employed prioritise and normalise western conceptions of development and equity”, Whitty said.

The main existing internationally comparable indices relate to gender access to education – where the UN agency UNESCO has done considerable work – and on socio-economic status of students where the World Bank and other agencies have collated data.

But gender and socio-economic background are only two aspects affecting participation in post-secondary education and by which life chances are determined, Whitty said. Others include ethnic origins, language, religious belief, political affiliation, sexuality and age.

Indigenous groups, and refugee status are other considerations, with the latter becoming a growing access issue with the huge influx of refugees from the Middle East.

“But not every country would collect such data – or even allow such collection,” Whitty said. In Colombia, for example, collecting data on individual’s ethnicity is forbidden under the constitution.

Multiple inequalities exist in each country but “different things matter to different countries”, Atherton said. Countries such as Finland collect data within a range of different social categories. Malaysia and the UK also collect a variety of social data, but it is a far more uneven picture in other countries, though Kenya does relatively well compared to other African countries.

Countries such as Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Qatar have very low levels of data collection on a limited number of categories.

“We were only able to get comparative data for a handful of categories,” Atherton said. Nonetheless, he noted, there appears to be strong support for the collection of data on post-secondary participation and social background. “It is perceived as crucial to improving actual access across countries.”

“Now we are grappling with how to interpret it.” For example, it is essential to understand caste and race in countries such as India and South Africa, not just parental background, a common indicator in the west.


And there are socially and politically sensitive areas such as sexuality and religion, which could raise ethical issues.

“Our project was to be a feasibility study of whether an equity metric or index was possible in terms of the availability of data – or even desirable in political terms,” Whitty said. “At the moment it is an open question... whether such a venture is desirable or feasible or whether it is flawed, either technically or ethically.”

In addition, the expense of collecting and collating such data might not be worth it, according to some conference delegates who felt governments and institutions might be better off putting the kind of money used for data collection into actually improving equity.