Most countries failing to tackle unequal access to HE

Participation in higher education around the world continues to be unequal from a social background perspective, with a large number of countries paying only ‘lip service’ to the equity agenda, says a barometer report released to mark the first World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) on 28 November 2018.

More than two-thirds of countries surveyed did not have specific participation targets for any equity group.

The new report, All Around the World – Higher education equity policies across the globe, released at the WAHED conference held at Aston University in the United Kingdom, is based on a survey of more than 71 countries and eight supra-national organisations, including the World Bank, European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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.

The research, authored by global tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi and supported by the Lumina Foundation, examined policies on equitable access to higher education and builds on findings by UNESCO in 2016, which found that only 1% of the poorest 25-29 year olds had completed at least four years of higher education, compared to 20% of the richest in over 70 mainly low-income countries.

The WAHED survey found a number of positive developments, such as the elimination of tuition fees for the poorest students in countries as diverse as Chile, the Philippines and South Africa, and the growing availability of grants for indigenous students in Australia, Brazil and Romania. These should translate into greater opportunities to study for traditionally underrepresented population groups.

However, on the negative side, the survey highlighted that the growing student loan debt in many countries, the legal challenges against affirmative action in the United States, and the difficulties that the rapidly increasing numbers of refugee youths find in trying to access higher education are likely to affect many students adversely from an equity viewpoint.

The report’s author, Salmi, said: “The new study aims to address inequalities in access and success in higher education and analyses equity promotion policies of relevant multilateral and regional agencies involved in providing policy advice, technical assistance and financial support.”

Salmi said the report – the first in the WAHED Global Higher Education Policy Barometer project – included a survey of 71 countries to explore which national higher education policy documents referred to equitable access and success in higher education. It also looked at which governments set targets for participation and success for students from specific equity groups and which had strategies and plans in place to address inequalities.

The survey involved consultations with key global or regional inter-governmental agencies to establish whether they have policies in place to address inequalities in higher education, and if resources are allocated to work in this area.

It clearly showed that, with the exception of a few fragile states recovering from a natural catastrophe or a major political crisis, equity is a priority theme in the higher education agenda of governments around the world.

Some paying only ‘lip service’

However, beyond official statements about equity, the survey found that a large number of countries are paying only “lip service” to the equity agenda.

Despite having policy statements about expanding access, many governments fail to spell out clear equity promotion strategies, define concrete targets to enrol and support students in vulnerable conditions, mobilise sufficient resources targeted to underrepresented groups or put in place actions to help students complete their degrees.

“Only 32% of countries surveyed had defined specific participation targets for any equity group,” said Salmi.

Minority ethnic groups are frequent victims of “blind spots” as governments sometimes see recognition of their rights as a threat to the power, prestige or resources of the dominant group, the report said.

While most nations focus on the barriers faced by traditional equity target groups, such as students from low-income households, girls, members of ethnic minorities and students with disabilities, some countries have added non-traditional equity groups such as victims of sexual and gender violence, members of the LGBT community, refugees of all kinds (internally and externally displaced, deported), children of people affected by historical violence and students with care experience, orphans and young people without parental care.

Main focus on financial aid

The WAHED survey found a greater focus on financial aid than non-monetary access interventions, with students from the lowest income groups exempted from paying fees in a number of higher education systems, including the Canadian provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick, Chile, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Philippines and South Africa.

Grants and scholarships are the second financial instrument that countries rely on to promote equity in higher education. Colombia’s Ser Pilo Paga programme, for example, gives a generous grant to students from the lowest two income quintiles who get top scores in the university entrance exam, while the government in Pakistan uses grants and scholarships to promote access for girls.

The most frequently supported non-monetary programmes are affirmative action and reformed admission criteria, outreach and bridge programmes, and retention programmes.

A growing number of countries are bringing financial and non-monetary interventions together to remove all barriers faced by students coming from disadvantaged groups in a comprehensive way.

Incentives for universities

A few governments also complement the direct support offered to students with incentives for the universities to take a more proactive role in improving access and success opportunities.

“This is achieved by incorporating an equity indicator into the funding formula, setting up earmarked funds for equity interventions that universities can benefit from, and including equity-related criteria in the quality assurance process,” said Salmi.

When comparing equity policies across the 71 countries surveyed, Salmi classified four equity policy categories:
  • • Emerging – Nine countries that formulated broad equity policy principles and goals, but accomplished little in terms of concrete policies, programmes and interventions.

  • • Developing – 33 countries with the foundations of an equity promotion strategy, but which had not defined many policies and programmes or invested much in this area.

  • • Established – 23 countries which had an equity promotion strategy and had put in place aligned policies, programmes and interventions.

  • • Advanced – Six countries which had implemented a comprehensive equity promotion strategy, with some even having a dedicated equity promotion agency.
The countries appearing as “emerging” from an equity policy viewpoint are essentially fragile states that have had neither the resources nor the political stability necessary to elaborate and sustain solid equity policies for higher education.

“The countries that are most advanced in their policy commitment to providing equal opportunities of access and success in higher education have a comprehensive equity strategy – sometimes even a dedicated agency – and they seek to ensure consistency over time in terms of alignment among policy objectives, improvement targets for various equity groups, resources, and quality assurance criteria.”

Six exemplar countries

Among all the countries surveyed, Australia, Cuba, England, Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland stand out in respect to their policy commitment to providing equal opportunities of access and success in higher education, said Salmi.

The survey found a small number of countries setting up bodies dedicated to equity in higher education. In Australia, the federal government funds a centre located within Curtin University whose mission is to study and monitor equity in higher education and provide government with evidence-based advice.

Similarly, the government of India provides funding to several university-based centres to conduct research on equity issues. England, interestingly, used to have an Office for Fair Access fully dedicated to equity promotion. In 2017, however, the government eliminated that agency and transferred its responsibilities to the newly created Office for Students, which has a wider span of responsibilities.

In total, 11% of the countries surveyed have elaborated a comprehensive equity policy document. Another 11% have formulated an equity policy document for a specific group, either gender, people with disabilities or students from indigenous groups.

Australia, Austria, India, Ireland, Morocco, Scotland and Wales have broad standalone higher education equity strategies, says the report, while Afghanistan, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, New Zealand, Paraguay and Peru have strategies for specific target groups. Colombia has both.

Australia, Costa Rica, India and Paraguay have also set up a body dedicated to studying and monitoring equity in higher education.

Key and new groups targeted

Low-income students and students with disabilities are the two equity target groups most often included in higher education policy documents, the survey found, with gender equality and the needs of members of ethnic minorities also often being mentioned.

In Afghanistan, for example, the Ministry of Higher Education has a gender strategy, while Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and New Zealand have strategies for students from indigenous groups.

An interesting finding of the survey is the emergence of new sub-categories of equity groups within the broad “minority” classification. Traditionally, minority groups were defined in terms of their ethnic, linguistic, religious or residence characteristics, but several countries are considering additional categories.

These include first-generation students in the United States; victims of sexual abuse or violence in Colombia, Ecuador and Spain; children of invalid veterans or civil servants in Mexico, Russia and Vietnam; demobilised guerrilla fighters and paramilitaries in Colombia and students from occupied territories in Georgia. In Denmark, they also include students who do not speak the national language, the survey found.

Salmi says this first survey of national equity policies in higher education “barely scraped the surface of the issues and challenges involved in seeking to improve opportunities for access and success at the post-secondary level” and he hopes the focus of the next phase of investigation of equity policies will look at which interventions are most successful, and under what conditions.

The individual country reports and the inter-governmental agency reports can be read on the World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) website.