The higher education access dilemma – more or better?

As policy-makers and economists increasingly make a connection between a highly educated population and gains in productivity, economic development and growth, many countries are promoting rapid expansion of higher education.

But that expansion needs to be equitable, to include often marginalised populations. This is not just for reasons of balanced development and social justice, but to prevent the income gap, which is already high in many countries, from becoming even wider, creating its own social problems.

This was the key message to delegates from 30 countries at a conference organised by the Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, initiative, held on 5-8 October.

The conference “Meeting the Global Challenge of Building Equitable Knowledge Economies”, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, heard that rapid growth in higher education participation is often driven by demand – and in Asia, the region of biggest growth in higher education enrolment, this is particularly evident – from the rising aspirations of a growing middle class.

Michael Crawford, an Asia Pacific education specialist at the World Bank, told the conference it was vital for countries to improve the skills of their populations given the connection between learning and general productivity.

To some extent this is being met in the developing world by setting up private institutions, increasing transnational education, and in the case of the conference host country Malaysia and some other countries, the establishing of foreign branch campuses.

But demand-led growth in higher education participation on its own is problematic. “The question in GAPS is who will those students be, who will have access?” said GAPS conference chair Graeme Atherton. Across countries with different levels of income and development, “the common feature is that if your parents did not go to university your chances are much lower”, he said.


“Equitable expansion of higher education should not be evaluated by counting the number of new education institutions but by looking at the systems and ways to reach a diversified domestic education landscape,” said Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, president of the Paris-based International Association of Universities, or IAU.

“There is an imbalance,” he said. “Economics is the driving force of education; however economics alone makes the issue of inequity worse.”

Unless the existing tensions between provision and access can be addressed, “the question of equity is just lip service”, Razak said.

Paul Koshy, a researcher at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, Australia, said even if higher education provision can be expanded swiftly, “how do you ensure access in such a system?”

“There is the same problem of how it should be funded and who pays? Is it the student through his or her future (ie student loans) or taxpayers?”

“Expansion in provision will partly address access, but growth will tend to reproduce elites,” said Christine Ennew, provost of the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus.


Delegates noted some universities successfully increase enrolments from marginalised groups only to see many of the disadvantaged students drop out.

“Access should always be associated to retention, quality and success,” Razak said. “Even without expanding access and increasing the number of students, there will be an even greater impact if the percentage of dropouts and students leaving the system without a diploma can be drastically reduced.”

“Access without a reasonable chance of success [for the student] is not access at all, it is a revolving door policy,” said June Pym, director of the Education Development Unit at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Throughout the world an increasing number of first-generation students are being accepted into higher education, Pym said. Some are well-prepared for academic life; others are seriously underprepared.

She added that school qualifications “are telling us less and less” and are not indicative of how students, particularly disadvantaged students, would perform in higher education. Retention is about providing proper support, she said. “For me it’s about developing a culture of care and a moral responsibility. You can’t just accept them onto a course.”

Backed by GAPS, Pym is proposing the formation of a global institute that can research a range of different models and practices for post-secondary access and equity issues, which would include appropriate research, develop partnerships and establish high-level principles “that would create an environment where students have a reasonable chance of success”, she said.

Other delegates pointed to different interpretations of access, and the variety of different disadvantaged groups according to countries and regions, yet they acknowledged there were issues that overlapped between countries and experiences that could be drawn together by such a centre.

Evidence and measurement

In particular, the need to build up evidence of what works is becoming crucial to securing government funding for more equitable access. Ian Anderson, pro vice-chancellor, engagement, at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said bringing more indigenous aborigines into the health sciences particularly through partnerships between universities and schools had a demonstrated impact on aborigine health. “But we could have done even better,” he said.

There is already some evidence that putting resources into aborigine health workers makes a huge difference to aboriginal health. “Now we want to scale up, and we need financial investment so we need the evidence,” he said. “Academic research needs to be informed by practice and it is vital for practice to be informed by research.”

Again and again delegates came back to the issue of how to measure equity. GAPS is investigating the idea of a global education equity index.

Malaysia, for example, which has been under fire over its racially based quotas in higher education, has said it is devising a “unity index” to monitor the racial mix in higher education to ensure it is more representative of the population in general, according to Director-General of Higher Education in Malaysia’s Ministry of Education, Asma Binti Ismail.

In May, education ministers at the World Education Forum 2015, signed the Incheon declaration to ensure inclusive quality education, “addressing all forms of exclusion, access and disparity”, Gwang Jo Kim, director of UNESCO’s Asia Pacific regional bureau for education, told the conference.

GAPS delegates noted it was far from clear how this would be achieved but it was important to hold ministers to account, and collating research evidence could be one way to do this.

Funding access

The challenges of funding access was also a topic at the conference.

Ismail said that under Malaysia’s recently released Education Blueprint to 2025, which aims to increase the current gross enrolment ratio of 36% to 70% by 2025, all public universities must take 10% of their enrolment from the poorest students and indigenous groups. Access is assisted by a government loan programme.

But she acknowledged that with huge default rates on government student loans, “we need a new accessibility model. It is not working.”

Traditionally funding comes from the public sector, while much of the expansion in private provision in Asia has been in private higher education, delegates noted. This has led to some problems in students at private institutions accessing funds.

Nottingham University’s Ennew said scholarships were a way to improve equitable access, “but they are reaching those who already have the aspiration to go to university. It does not go beyond that.”

“The real challenge for private higher education is raising aspirations. It does not serve the immediate institutional need and so it is difficult to address,” Ennew said.

More community engagement was needed by universities to promote access, including working in schools to target disadvantaged children so they can recognise that university is a possibility, a number of delegates said.

“Access must be much more about reaching to excellence which would otherwise be wasted, lost to society,” said Maurits van Rooijen, head of the London School of Business and Finance and a member of the Netherlands-based European Access Network.