Higher education can take a lead in fighting inequity

As every week appears to bring greater political uncertainty – from the imminent departure of the German chancellor to the new populist president in Brazil to the United Kingdom spiralling further into the vortex of Brexit – it becomes ever more important for higher education to keep defining its place in this world.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Is it an interested observer or strategic actor looking to influence the world in which it operates? If it is the latter, then the area where it can, and should, make an impact is on inequality.

The first World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) is being held on 28 November. The aim of WAHED is to act as a catalyst for regional, national and global action to address inequalities in access to higher education. It is led by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) from the UK. More than 100 organisations are engaged with WAHED from over 30 countries, with representation from every continent in the world.

The momentum generated for the first WAHED shows that there is a global community of organisations and individuals committed to making higher education more equitable in different ways.

EdX is one of the founding partners of WAHED, extending access to higher education via online education. Unicamp in Brazil is bringing together participants from the institutional working teams on human rights, sexual violence, gender discrimination and those working with refugees, indigenous and disabled students to examine what the institution does.

In Asia and Australasia in particular there are WAHED events. In Asia an event involving university leaders in Pakistan focusing on equity challenges in their higher education system is being organised by the British Council and in Australia the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education is organising a major national conference looking at the state of equity in Australian higher education.

However, while the activities associated with WAHED are evidence that there are those in higher education taking inequality seriously, the extent of the challenge is thrown into sharp focus by the research released to mark WAHED.

Lip service

This research, supported by the Lumina Foundation and produced by education economist Jamil Salmi, has examined policies on equitable access to higher education in more than 60 countries and eight supra-national organisations, including the World Bank, European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This research will be the first step in an ongoing WAHED project to map policy commitment to equitable access to higher education across the world, with an inventory of each country’s policies held on the WAHED website.

This first report in the WAHED Global Higher Education Policy Barometer project shows that, in nearly all the countries studied, equitable access to higher education is described as a priority.

But beyond this headline commitment, a number of countries may still be paying only ‘lip service’ to the equity agenda, meaning that, beyond the general policy statements about expansion of access, governments do not spell out clear equity promotion strategies, define concrete targets to enrol and support students from marginalised groups or outline what resources will be devoted to supporting these groups to enter and succeed in higher education.

It also appears that many countries’ definition of what constitutes equity policies is limited. There is significant emphasis on financial aid as the main way in which inequalities in access and success should be addressed. There is less evidence of systematic commitment and delivery of programmes at the national, regional or institutional level that can support the attainment of learners at the pre-higher education level and which are part of the equity policy portfolio.

The idea that there may be differences in cultural resources which make it more difficult for certain groups to access higher education, for example, less knowledge of the higher education system and how to navigate application and support upon entry is not one that appears commonly understood.

Third, many countries have a narrow definition of equity groups with a focus on those primarily from low-income backgrounds, but not on other groups. Minority ethnic groups are the frequent victims of these ‘blind spots’, as are those with disabilities.

There is clearly much to do to move the policy dial on equitable access to higher education. But there is also much to discuss regarding higher education’s role in moving this dial. The ability of higher education providers to influence government policy differs greatly across countries, and even in those where providers are more autonomous and able to advocate for particular outcomes, their ability to influence is limited within certain parameters.


However, this does not mean they do not try, and when it comes to funding for research and also teaching, or of support for internationalisation, they are quite vocal. This is less the case with equity.

It may be seen as another job to do, when institutions are already stretched to meet all their other commitments and thus it is not a strategically astute thing to speak too much about. However, the reality may be quite contrary.

Adequate resourcing is needed to pursue equity objectives and that is a theme coming out of the discussions around the world happening through WAHED.

But to stand outside the inequality debate makes higher education the observer, watching rather than participating in the changes that are shaping the world in the 21st century. The risk in doing this is that these changes both directly and indirectly shape higher education in ways that threaten what it does and how it does it.

WAHED is about trying to show that higher education can and wants to become more equal. In the times we live in at present, there can be no more important a message for higher education to give than this.

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).