Widening university participation needs a global network

It is often argued that higher education moves slowly, and that is never more true than where widening access is concerned. Policy-makers in individual countries are increasingly recognising that boosting participation in higher education means extending participation to hitherto under-represented groups and that those from all social backgrounds need to complete and succeed when they enter.

But this recognition is too often not backed up by action, and while higher education institutions may be at last beginning to realise that inequality is something higher education is contributing to rather than solving, millions of people across the world are missing out on a higher education experience.

Change needs to happen quicker or it will not just be those from disadvantaged backgrounds across the world who are marginalised but higher education itself as it appears unfit to meet one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.

This need to accelerate change, and to do this on a global level, is why we are launching the first World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) on 28 November this year. The aim of WAHED is to create a platform that raises global awareness around inequalities in access to higher education and acts as a catalyst for international, regional and local action.

WAHED will be built around a series of hub conferences in the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and India with a call for activities in countries across the world on that day that focus on breaking down the barriers to access. Over the next six months, in the build-up to WAHED the voices of students will be key as those from low-income and marginalised communities tell their stories about higher education and the impact it has had on their lives.

The challenge of increasing participation

The case for WAHED is a strikingly powerful one. The Charting Equity in Higher Education study of 2016 showed that in every country in the world where evidence was available (over 90%), participation in higher education was unequal by social background. Also in 2016 UNESCO found looking across 76 mainly low-income countries that 20% of the richest 25-29 year olds had completed at least four years of higher education, compared with less than 1% of the poorest.

Making WAHED a success, though, will be challenging. The extent of evidence regarding inequality in access to higher education is matched only by the inertia in tackling this inequality.

There are four main things WAHED will have to do if it is to change this inertia:

  • Be genuinely global: Inequalities prevail everywhere and much work is going on to address these across the world, but the language of access and investment in it is found only in certain nations. This puts the responsibility on them to provide the stimulus for WAHED, but it must include those from across the world at every level.

  • Ensure access means success in and through higher education: Access should not just mean entering higher education. In many countries the inability of students from diverse backgrounds to complete their courses and the struggles they have after graduation to get good jobs critically undermines the case for extending participation. It may be expedient to use the label access, but it cannot mask the fact that participation without progression is not participation at all.

  • Learn from other causes: Affecting what happens in higher education is fundamental to addressing inequalities in access, but it may require looking outside higher education to see how this could be done. There is a range of global campaigns that focus on addressing different forms of inequality. These campaigns build coalitions of organisations from across sectors and continually emphasise core messages, in particular via social media. WAHED will need to do both these things.

  • Be a platform for ongoing change: WAHED can be a powerful focal point for a global campaign to address inequalities in access to higher education, but this challenge needs continual work. The aim for WAHED should be to a springboard for the formation of a global network of organisations committed to this agenda, advocating throughout the year and promoting innovation in access work across the world.

Unlike many other parts of higher education, there are not the same well-developed global networks that foster debate, exchange of practice and advocacy in the field of widening access. The hub conferences across the world are an opportunity to debate what such a network could look like and how it could be sustainable.

Most importantly, though, the conferences and WAHED itself could develop tangible access goals to pursue on a global level. The nature of inequalities in higher education participation differs across countries. The specific groups who access needs to be widened for, and how this could be done, are grounded in the individual histories of particular countries.

WAHED is an opportunity, though, to strengthen the efforts being undertaken to meet these different national challenges by articulating common global objectives, for example, to reduce gaps in higher education participation by socio-economic background by 30% by 2035.

WAHED has the potential not only to bolster work in the field of widening access on a global level. By bringing together higher education providers and policy-makers from across the world to address a major challenge, it could also show the power of higher education itself.

Dr Graeme Atherton is the director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) in the United Kingdom. NEON is leading on the inaugural World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED), which is supported by NCUK. WAHED was launched at Going Global in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last week.