More to widening access to HE than just financial aid

Widening access and participation is not enough to tackle social exclusion in the world’s universities, an international conference marking the first World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) heard from representatives from all corners of the globe.

“You also need to offer psychological support to students coming through the access route because they can struggle with many problems during their time at university,” a Latin American vice rector told the Beyond Borders conference hosted by Aston University in the United Kingdom.

Milagros Morgan, vice rector for university services at the Peruvian University of Applied Science in Lima (Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas, Peru), said her private institution served 56,000 students and was committed to UNESCO’s anti-discrimination guidelines and expanding opportunities to the multicultural and diverse society in the country.

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But it needed to work on three dimensions when widening participation to low-income and other disadvantaged students: access to get into university, support while at university, and opening up opportunities to others.

“Taking advantage of higher education changes their lives and others in their community,” she said, adding that providing scholarships and other financial aid was sometimes not enough and disadvantaged students often needed emotional and psychological support to succeed.

Students from rural communities faced big challenges when moving to the capital, staying with people with different ways of behaviour and learning to adapt to new ways of living, she told delegates.

“We do surveys student by student and classify three groups of students – high-risk, medium-risk and no-risk – about whether they will perform well in higher education. We have very good resources to assess their needs and whether we need to intervene,” she said.

The conference at Birmingham’s Aston University was one of several international events to mark the first World Access to Higher Education Day and was organised by Dr Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) in the UK.

It coincided with publication of the first WAHED Global Education Policy Barometer survey, which showed that while most countries had policy commitments to widening participation, they often only “scraped the surface” in activities and specific targets to make a difference.

The survey found only six higher education systems standing out in respect to providing equal opportunities of access and success in higher education, including Cuba.

Many European nations are still failing to grasp the widening access to higher education agenda, but there are exceptions such as Austria, which “has really taken this on board”, said Atherton.

He told University World News: “The only higher education minister who offered us explicit support was the Austrian minister Heinz Faßmann, who wrote a very nice direct email saying he believed in what we were trying to do. So Austria may be the new frontier for widening access in higher education.”

Some countries face specific challenges as their education system adapts to the need for a more skilled and flexible population, and none more so than the Philippines which has just completed a major overhaul of its high school system – including adding two more years to the length of education.

Financial support

Dr Arnel Uy, vice-chancellor for administration at De La Salle University in the country’s capital Manila, said: “This meant almost no new freshmen for the last two years for the country’s 1,943 universities. One of the main reasons for adding two more years to basic education was that our graduates were often much younger than elsewhere in the world and would not normally be accepted on their education credentials.”

He said 88% of higher education institutions in the Philippines were private universities. In the case of De La Salle, it is run by a Catholic order with a mission to help “the poor and marginalised”.

But with some of the highest tuition fees in the country, the university is challenged in terms of access and has worked hard in recent years to expand financial support for disadvantaged students. It currently provides 3,000 of its 14,000 undergraduates with internally funded scholarships and has a number of externally funded endowments for talented students from the lower income brackets.

“In 2012 after our centennial celebrations, we launched the Vaugirard Scholarship Program, which gives free tuition, accommodation and a monthly stipend to 435 scholars,” Uy told University World News.

“But we found that it was not just financial help they need. There are social issues too as many feel they don’t belong in the student community. They don’t have the latest top-notch cell phone and things like that can make a big difference when you are 18.”

To widen their outlook, the university is embarking on a global enrichment programme which will mean new students will spend a term or a summer school or internship in another country to encourage a global mindset, said Uy.

Affirmative policies needed

Staying in Asia, Professor NV Varghese, vice-chancellor of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration and director of the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education in India, said: “While higher education has become massified in many Asian countries, policies for diversity are often lacking at both the national and institutional level.”

He said Asian universities often use a “quota system for particular groups of people based on economic and social background”, but “gains made in access are negated by lack of strategies to address the issue of diversity in the classroom and lack of social inclusion on the campuses”.

He said: “The main bases of exclusion in India are caste, religion, gender, region and economic”, adding that while enrolments are rapidly expanding and India expects to have the biggest number of students of any country in the world within ten to 15 years, “the expansion of higher education will expand inequality unless affirmative policies targeting the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged are in place”.

Wake-up call

A view from Europe was presented to the Beyond Borders event by Julie Anderson, policy officer at the European Commission, who said the first terrorist attack in Paris in 2015 by people who were born and grew up as French citizens was a wake-up call to European governments regarding the social exclusion felt by some disadvantaged and marginalised young people.

“It led to an important conference by heads of state in Gothenburg, Sweden that moved the focus from economic policy to inclusion and led to what we now call the European Education Area,” she told the WAHED conference.

“In education as a whole we have continued inequality that is passed from one generation to the next,” she said, adding that the European Union had set a target to reduce the number of people who only have basic skills to 15% by 2020.

It also wants 15% of people to take part in lifelong learning, and added that the new Erasmus+ programme aims to lift the percentage of students from under-represented groups taking part in its mobility opportunities from its current level of just 11.5%.

“We are looking at the next Erasmus programme for more top-up grants and also looking at blended mobility, where you can do more online, but where your geographical mobility is slightly less,” she explained, adding that studying or working abroad for a semester or longer was not an option for many of the more disadvantaged students.

Gaps in access

Chris Millward, director of Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students in the UK, told the conference: “We have a lot to learn from the experience of others around the world.”

He said UK higher education had made significant progress in widening participation over the last two decades, but there were still “gaps in access and success for students in the most disadvantaged groups, and that is particularly the case in the most selective universities”.

Speaking on behalf of WAHED’s main sponsor, Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation in the United States, said: “The US is falling behind in attainment because we grew complacent and while we see higher education as life-changing, we don’t see it as necessary.”

He said this was causing its own problem, since of the 11.6 million new jobs created in the United States since the end of the recession in 2011, 11.5 million had gone to people with a college degree.

“Almost all of those who have benefited from the American economic recovery are those with post-secondary qualifications,” he said.