Plans for a global higher education access consortium

Plans are afoot to launch a Global Higher Education Access and Diversity Consortium next year, bringing together universities and civil society groups from around the world to advocate, show leadership and share best practice around these globally pertinent issues.

There are also advocacy efforts to hold a World Access to Higher Education Day, starting in 2017, and it could be a springboard for the consortium’s launch, said Dr Graeme Atherton, head of AccessHE at London Higher, which represents universities and colleges in London.

The University of Edinburgh in Scotland is likely to host the global consortium and would provide sustainability and support for it.

The idea was outlined at a one-day forum on “Equitable Access to Higher Education: Making the global case”, held after the British Council’s Going Global 2016 conference in Cape Town, South Africa, earlier this month, and has subsequently been fleshed out further.

The forum was organised by Atherton, who is also founder and director of the National Education Opportunities Network or NEON, an organisation for access to higher education in England that has more than 60 higher education institution members.

“We started with the thought that a world day would be useful to focus attention on the access issue and mobilise people around different understandings of diversity and the way it is interpreted,” Atherton told University World News. “But a day can only go so far.” The consortium would provide a focal point for ongoing activity.

Evidence of a problem

Professor Sue Welburn, vice-principal for global access at the University of Edinburgh and chair in medical-veterinary molecular epidemiology, said at the NEON forum that access to higher education was a major issue for the developing world and also for many developed regions.

In Scotland, little had changed since the 1990s. By 2010-11, only 11% of students were from the most deprived areas, and in 2013 Scotland passed a post-16 education bill that “reinforced our duty to recruit and retain more students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

Going Global 2015 launched a Manifesto for Global Access to Higher Education that called, among other things, for funding models that remove wealth obstacles to participation, tackling barriers to equal education opportunities, developing pre-university programmes to aid transition to degree study, and ranking universities by their social impact.

Welburn said inequalities in higher education by social background were pervasive across continents, countries and institutions, and that achieving greater access and diversity was a major challenge that needed long-term engagement, commitment and attention.

To provide an evidence base for a problem that Atherton said “is global and everywhere”, he and colleagues have for two years been working on a Global Access Map report – to be published in September by Pearson and the University of Newcastle in Australia.

There has been a survey of 50 countries that draws on local expertise, secondary data from organisations such as the OECD and the World Bank and case studies of Australia, Colombia, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

There are five key findings, Atherton told the NEON forum. The first is that inequality in access is almost universal. “We have evidence to show that in over 90% of the countries in the world there is evidence of systematic inequality in access.”

Second, there are significant gaps in data, with most only available on gender or socio-economic background. Third, access and inequality is difficult to compare, with different measures and definitions – but “comparison is a very powerful way of driving change. Comparison drives policy-makers to think about change.”

Fourth, access to higher education means more than participation – it is also about student retention and success. And fifth, political will shapes data collection. “What information is produced and the ability to produce it is a political question that involves resources.”

World access day and the consortium

The rationale for a World Access to Higher Education Day, said Sue Welburn, was that greater efforts would have to be made to realise access goals due to competing educational interests such as the drive to universal primary education.

The day’s key message would be that higher education has a real positive impact on students and their communities and multiple benefits.

There would be a network of conferences with the global consortium’s founding partners that reach key regional decision-makers, as well as activities to celebrate achievements including by showcasing the innovative work of NEON partners in 60 countries, to engage students and champions in a ‘global voices’ campaign and to “achieve momentum for change”.

Welburn said the University of Edinburgh and NEON were introducing the concept of World Access to Higher Education Day to the sector globally, and were inviting universities and other organisations to take leadership and become founding partners of the consortium.

World Access to Higher Education Day will be led by a steering group made up of founding partners and key strategic partners and would have its first day in 2017, said Welburn.

The next steps will be consultation with partners, identifying a suitable day in the World Events Calendar and seeking sponsorship. “Founding partners will help shape and steer this initiative – and shape a new global conversation on access and diversity.”

The consortium

The global access consortium, Atherton told University World News, was seeking higher education institutions from different continents worldwide.

While initially the consortium would involve universities that wanted to show leadership and best practice on access, it could be extended to all committed higher education institutions, to form a broader group that works together across boundaries.

There were also foundations, and philanthropic and civil society groups doing crucial work in the area of access, and global policy-makers such as UNESCO and the World Bank would be engaged along with international groups such as the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as they all “have a stake and a role to play in the access issue”.

“There are a number of institutions we think are interested. Now we are working out how to move forward together and what the agenda would be. The Global Access Map report would provide a fantastic foundation, with more research needed. There is a quite substantial advocacy agenda to take forward if you had an organisation with capacity to do it.”