Higher education and equality – Action urgently needed

Significant gains in widening participation and promoting equality in universities could be made by shifting from an admissions system based on ‘formal’ meritocracy to one of ‘fair’ meritocracy, says Vikki Boliver, professor of sociology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

This means taking a contextualised approach to entry requirements and not naively thinking that students compete on a level playing field when demonstrating merit through the school examination system.

Boliver was a panellist in a discussion on “Higher education and equality” at the Centre for Global Higher Education or CGHE’s 2018 Annual Conference, held on 11 April at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Also on the panel were Dr Dung Doan, a fellow at the Australian National University and CGHE research associate; Ben Whittaker, National Union of Students director of student voice and influence; and Professor Rajani Naidoo, director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the UK’s University of Bath and CGHE research associate. Naidoo will comment on her remarks in an upcoming article in University World News.

Access to what?

The panel was chaired by CGHE Co-Investigator Ellen Hazelkorn, policy advisor to the Irish Higher Education Authority and director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

Hazelkorn pointed out that equality is a major issue for higher education. Most disturbingly, “despite analysis and action over many decades, inequality remains stubbornly persistent. Many promises promoted by or about higher education, most notably upward social and economic mobility, are proving untrue – or at least untrue for too many.”

Education is an indicator of future life chances, but it is known from research that educational achievement at age eight can determine people’s earnings by age 36.

“Education systems can be a force for social mobility but they also reproduce and reinforce social divides. Indeed, arguably, many universities spend most of their time trying to keep out students rather than let them in,” said Hazelkorn.

Much discussion around equity has been about participation rates and programme quality rather than on ‘access to what’, or on growing stratification and differentiated levels of learning and success.

Hazelkorn said there had been very many university as well as national initiatives. “What these efforts have shown us however is that individual initiatives are at best limited. Many are actually exercises in creaming, where universities act as permanent gatekeepers.”

Also, rather than owning the inequality problem, universities tend to just walk away. What happens off-campus – before students enter or after they graduate – is largely ignored while universities focus primarily on students and resources that deliver reputational advantage.

Attack the problem

Vikki Boliver said: “We need to go on the attack if we are going to make any progress whatsoever on access to higher education in the United Kingdom and other countries.

“We have massive discrepancies between high- and low-income students in terms of going to university at all. It is even worse when we look at the most prestigious universities.”

Things haven’t changed much in decades, despite widening participation being high on the policy agenda, “massive political will” and numerous initiatives. So as not to still be talking about this in the decades to come, a different approach to widening participation is needed.

But first, there is a need to recognise that the biggest obstacles to participation are not those often focused on, such as improving aspirations. “Aspirations are in abundance among low-income and working-class students,” Boliver pointed out.

The sticking point is improving school achievement – which is the currency used to determine who has the merit to attend university – among disadvantaged students.

In most parts of the UK, school achievement correlates closely with socio-economic status. Even though universities know this, prestigious institutions especially set the entry bar very high, “not particularly for pedagogical reasons but for market reasons”.

“The demand for places at universities is sufficiently high that they can raise the price, and the price of course is the entry requirements.”

Boliver said the system was “formally meritocratic in the sense that everybody is held to the same account and has to jump over the same hurdle”. And it is meritocratic in the naive sense that there is an assumption that grades at GCSE and A-level “are adequate and accurate and objective indicators of the merit or worth of potential of students”.

“We know that this is not true, but we persist in pretending that grades are everything and that those with the highest grades are the ones who deserve to go to university, particularly the most prestigious ones.”

Formal versus fair

Boliver draws on the work of John Rawls in distinguishing between ‘formal’ versus ‘fair’ equality of opportunity, and suggests a shift towards fair meritocracy. “That means not naively thinking that grades indicate merit and that there is a level playing field in order to demonstrate merit through the examination system.”

“Key to a fair meritocracy is taking a contextualised approach to setting entry requirements and judging whether students have met the requirements to go to university.”

If a pupil at an excellent private school does not achieve an A and-or B score, “mum and dad are going to want their money back”, explained Boliver. But this is a real struggle for pupils in disadvantaged communities, where three Cs would be an exceptional performance that indicates academic and life potential.

“We need to contextualise people’s school achievement to fully recognise the merit and potential that they have. We need to rethink our values and context.”

While some universities were already doing this to a modest degree, “we need to go much further if we are going to make a dent on widening participation”, said Boliver.

“The main place where universities have a power and autonomy to make changes is precisely with regard to entrance criteria and admission procedures.” Further, universities do have the financial and personnel resources to deliver the kinds of supportive education required for contextually disadvantaged students.

Developing country experience

Dr Dung Doan said that in developing countries such as India, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, economic growth has led to an expanding middle class, which has been driving demand for higher education.

Those left out are generally from low-income households, minorities, and poor and rural communities, “because there is a strong correlation between household income and local facilities”. The most disadvantaged students tend to drop out of secondary schools that are poorly equipped and staffed – or in some areas do not exist at all.

“For those lucky to finish secondary school, the decision to apply for higher education is constrained not only by the ability of the family to finance higher education but also by the demand for them to contribute to household income,” said Dung.

“At the other end of the spectrum, the most privileged students seek higher education overseas – mostly in North America, Europe, Australia – because of better job prospects after obtaining an overseas degree, and also because of the higher quality of education.”

Dung argued the need for action to improve access equality in developing countries in two areas – intervention before admission to higher education, and intervention at the point of university admission.

“In principle, this is not very different from what needs to be done in high-income countries. But the poorer and lower on the development ladder the country is, the higher the obstacles become to improving schooling outcomes.”

It is critical to identify the most important constraints to schooling outcomes in poor communities, to develop multi-faceted approaches to tackle them, and to do this at a community and regional level that ensures appropriate policy interventions. Single-aspect interventions applied at the national level are often not effective.

“At the other end of the process, the point of admission to university, financial support to poor students is very important, in order to have them not only attend university but stay and complete their degree. There is evidence from countries like Vietnam and South Korea that students from lower socio-economic status tend to work more part-time during their studies, which affects their performance and thus their ability to get a good job after graduation.”

Crucial to financial support for disadvantaged students, said Dung, is a well-established income-contingent student loan system such as those in Australia and New Zealand.

Excellence versus equity?

One conference participant raised the matter of whether equity involves a trade-off with excellence – a question that Rajani Naidoo said “gets to the heart of what we disagree about. We always think about excellence as being something to do with the minority.”

However, experience in countries such as Colombia was showing that it was possible to have academically excellent research in prestigious universities that also play a role in equality. “It doesn’t have to be a trade-off.”

Dung Doan said world-class universities should see it as part of their mission to build capacity in weaker institutions, including those in poorer countries, through a range of forms such as joint programmes, direct investment, exchange, curriculum sharing or training academics.

Boliver believed the question was framed within the notion of formal meritocracy, which fails to properly recognise that merit is social and economic in its genesis. “The excellence-equity trade-off is a misrecognition of the capacities and abilities of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I don’t think we need to think of it as a trade-off at all.”