Massification does not necessarily bring equity

The mass expansion of higher education has played a significant role in broadening the access to learning from previously only serving the elite, causing some commentators to moot it among the most important social transformations in the second half of the 20th century.

This 'massification', which occurred several decades ago in Western countries and only more recently in developing nations, has seen an increasing demand for university places and many countries are investing public funds to boost their universities’ world rankings.

Yet, this has not stopped the rising tension between achieving broader access and maintaining quality – and the reality is that poorer students still do not have access to the institutions of their choice that can provide them with a sound educational background.

In a newly-released paper entitled “Global Trends and their Impact on Latin America: The role of the state and the private sector in the provision of higher education”, Dr Carolina Guzmán Valenzuela from the University of Chile has traced the impact of global trends in higher education on the region.

In the paper, available via the Centre for Global Higher Education website, she argues Latin American countries are not sufficiently wealthy to finance higher education expenditure, leading to a burgeoning of private providers. Chile in particular has one of the most privatised higher education systems globally.

These institutions are not performing well in international rankings, but more critically, are also not addressing equity – while the growth of higher education providers has opened up access to a wider section of society, students with lower cultural and social capital are not accessing the most prestigious and selective institutions.

Guzmán Valenzuela says this has raised questions about how genuine the increase in access has been for the non-elite masses. Stratification in the higher education system, which reflects the regional inequalities, is more present than ever.

“Any debate about the benefits of public versus private universities must not ignore this fact,” she argues.

She focused on Chile because the country illustrated the growing private sector involvement in higher education and the insignificant role the state plays in funding that level of education or in providing quality regulations. The outcome was a point of no return in 2011 when thousands of university students protested, calling for a high-quality and free education for everyone.

Guzmán Valenzuela says massification has raised numerous issues, principally why it is important for more people to access higher education and what are the main benefits to the country, the institutions and the individuals themselves?

The common response is that accessing higher education promotes social mobility and the more people achieving this level of education, the better for individuals now earning higher salaries and raising their living standards, and for the country as it gains better educated citizens who can contribute socially and economically.

Who should pay?

However, Guzmán Valenzuela says it also raises questions on who should pay since, as long as the demand increases, so does the provision and the required resources. Before the 1960s, when accessing university was a privilege of a small elite, the state could finance higher education – something now beyond their capabilities given the volumes, leaving the families carrying the burden.

Countries are also investing public funds to position universities in world rankings with the private institutions following suit. Becoming a world-class university provides a branding platform to boost income and exercise power politically, economically, technologically and intellectually.

However, by definition, these positions are only possible for a select few and Guzmán Valenzuela says tensions arise from being labelled “a second-class university”. The Shanghai ranking has no Latin American universities in the top 100 and only the Universidade de Sao Paulo in Brazil ranking in the top 150.

The region currently has more than 8,000 higher education institutions of which 3,000 are universities (1,000 state and 2,000 private institutions). The mega-universities Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Universidad de Buenos Aires have over 300,000 students and the Universidad de Guadalajara over 200,000.

Guzmán Valenzuela says fewer than 20% of students in Cuba, Uruguay and Bolivia are enrolled in private institutions compared to more than 60% in Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and Brazil – and 80% in Chile and Paraguay. Further research shows a tendency for most higher education students to come from the richest families.

In Chile the percentage of the richest students is treble the 20% of the poorest – and across the continent, completion rates are typically low, but specifically weak among indigenous, black and rural people, those the World Bank deems the poorest population.

Guzmán Valenzuela says these statistics speak to equity in higher education. General inequality and the gap between rich and poor mean the richest students have a broader access to the system.

Inequality in different forms

That inequality is expressed both in the physical access to higher education and the type of institution to which the students can apply. In Brazil, Chile and Mexico, the poorest students access non-selective institutions while the richest ones access the most prestigious and selective ones.

The solution has been affirmative action where programmes provide academic and socio-emotional support to the best students in vulnerable secondary schools. These students attend various university courses that, once approved, enable them to enrol at university.

“The market of higher education has exponentially grown and diversified and more students and their families expect to have access… however, not all institutions enjoy the same status or prestige either for historical reasons or because of their research status and academic productivity,” Guzmán Valenzuela says.

The outcome is that only a few students, typically those from wealthy backgrounds, can access the most prestigious and selective universities. Students with lower cultural and social capital largely enter non-selective institutions that open their premises to anyone who can pay for their studies, but do not always offer a high quality educational service.

“The choice of studying in certain institutions is not a real choice, but a conditioned one that usually depends on the cultural and social capital of the students and their socio-economic position. The debate always needs to be accompanied by the question ‘access to what quality?’” Guzmán Valenzuela concludes.