Where is the global leadership on HE access for all?

Increasing participation in higher education is seemingly a common global priority, shared by the majority of governments across the world and for those working at the global policy level.

It is integrated into the work of the European Union through the social dimension of the Bologna process and one of UNESCO’s new global goals states: "By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university."

The idea that expanding systems can bring both economic growth and improve social cohesion unites countries as diverse as China and South Africa.

However, what extending access means actually differs greatly between countries, regions and those working across countries on economic and social development.

In particular, the extent to which access is grounded in a commitment to equitable access and extending opportunities to those from poor, marginalised communities and those subject to discrimination, backed up by funded policies with concrete objectives, is much more variable.

The danger is that unless we start to see real global leadership here, then equitable access to higher education becomes an empty aspiration rather than a genuine goal.

We have increasing evidence that inequalities in participation in higher education is a genuinely global problem.

The Drawing the Global Access Map report to be published later this year by Pearson and the University of Newcastle, Australia, assesses the extent of the evidence available on who participates in higher education globally. It shows that in more than 90% of countries in the world there is evidence of inequality in participation in higher education by some measure of social background.

If this is a global problem, then it requires global solutions. But it isn't immediately clear that those organisations that can be at the centre of building the coalitions necessary to develop such solutions are doing so. In particular, the UNESCO global goal on access to university education, while potentially a vehicle to propel this issue forwards in the work of governments and institutions, may stop short of achieving this goal.

It needs specific focus on who should be supported to go where and how.

As is the case with individual countries, the danger is that equity in access to higher education becomes part of a broad national ambition that lacks real substance and political will.

The forthcoming volume Access to Higher Education: Understanding global inequalities to be published by Palgrave MacMillan – which I declare an interest in as I have edited it – looks at the issue of equitable access in 13 countries.

It shows that while countries such as Colombia, Finland and Ghana have commitments to education equality enshrined in their constitutions or national development plans, where access to higher education is concerned such commitment is unable on its own to mobilise the strategic and financial actions that are required to make inroads into the inequalities that exist.

While having done good work in this area in the past, there appears room for improvement in what UNESCO, the World Bank and OECD could do to take forward the collaboration, dialogue and action required.

On a regional level there are distinct opportunities for the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the African Union to take real ownership of this issue and challenge their members to address the inequalities that exist in their countries. However, doing so requires bringing not just students themselves but the issue of equitable access in from the margins.

The issue of ‘who participates’ is too often seen as the concern of specialist staff operating at the periphery of institutions, or positioned as an add-on to higher education policy packages in order to give them a palatable sheen of social justice. Who attends higher education at the systemic level or the individual institution level does need targeted work.

Affirmative action

Approaches based around concepts of affirmative action as argued by Sigal Alon in last week’s University World News are essential. But they are not sufficient to address the equitable access challenge.

Funded, strategic and operational activity concentrated on extending participation to marginalised groups and also supporting their success in higher education should permeate the university in totum which includes the areas of quality assurance, funding, governance and leadership, pedagogy, the nature of academic knowledge and internationalisation.

It should also include both the developed and developing world.

Like so much of the global higher education discourse, the equity and access debate is shaped too much by the powerful, established mass participation systems of the Western world. It is the emerging and growing systems of Africa and Asia in particular where the issue is at its most acute.

They may well be at an advantage here. Building equitable access into the core of what higher education providers do across the kind of dimensions listed above as they grow could be easier than trying to bolt them on, which is the challenge in so much of the developed world.

But again, for this kind of thing to happen, committed global leadership is required. This needs to come from the global policy-making agencies but also the higher education sector itself.

There are opportunities for institutional leaders to step forward and become global advocates for equitable access to higher education. This coming week the British Council is bringing together higher education leaders from across the world to its annual Going Global conference in Cape Town, South Africa. It is the ideal opportunity for an institution or institutions to take the lead on this agenda.

Equal access to university education for all by 2030 is the right goal. But it won’t happen on its own. Leadership is needed – who will step up?

Dr Graeme Atherton is founder and director of the National Education Opportunities Network or NEON, which is the professional organisation for access to higher education in England and has over 60 higher education institution members. He is organising "Equitable Access to Higher Education: Making the global case", a one-day event in Cape Town, South Africa, on 6 May, after Going Global 2016.