Can widening access to university bring social change?

It is always gratifying to join voices that advocate for equal rights and social justice, for example initiatives that advance the wellbeing of ‘all’ through ‘access to education and health’, or those that plead for ‘living in dignity’, ‘having a decent job’ or ‘living in secure and just societies’.

They are part of a human rights agenda and sound logical to many of us who are revolted by cases and forms of injustice that are increasing and inequalities that are widening in most regions of the world, of the limitless profit-making logic of the neoliberal market.

Access, in itself, is a magical word. It resonates positivity; it embodies equality, equity, diversity and inclusion. “Access to higher education” reverberates with the fight against social injustice, stratification and unequal opportunities and promises a positive shift in the lives of all graduates. As such, it is a concept that carries what I call a ‘Cinderella syndrome’ with students personifying Cinderella and higher education playing the role of Prince Charming.

Underneath the promise

Beneath the straightforward message of increasing “access to higher education” lies several complications that affect the force, application and realisation of the happy ending promised, particularly as the quality of provision is undermined by the mushrooming of providers worldwide.

Access to higher education is frequently used as a stand-alone concept as if higher education – and therefore access to it – happens in a vacuum with no relation to other levels of education, or the historical, cultural and political context of the wider society.

It disregards the external events and mindsets that people have grown up with. It ignores the fact that inequality and inequity are woven into the fabric of our societies and are reflected in our education systems – starting not from higher education but from the very early stages of schooling.

It neglects the fact that in almost all regions of the world, including in Europe, West and South Asia and Latin America, education systems are organised to stratify students into fields of studies, that is, ‘technical vocational’ and ‘general studies’ and even to further filter students in each of these trajectories.

It also fails to underline that students from disadvantaged backgrounds usually end up in vocational colleges as a way to accelerate their entry to the job market without higher education. The question is: If our societies and institutions keep producing millions of Cinderellas, how realistic is our promise of access to the limited number of higher education institutions?

Different bars to higher education

Another source of concern is that when we research access and fairness in higher education, we tend to focus our attention on a particular group of students who are mainly socio-economically disadvantaged. What we may forget is that gender, religion and ethnic backgrounds can also be a source of disadvantage.

For instance, in West and South Asia and in North Africa, generally, female students’ access to university or to certain fields of study is hindered mainly by patriarchal beliefs and discriminatory legislation.

In the United States, only 13% of native Americans hold a bachelor degree, compared to 28% of other ethnic groups, mainly due to geographical distance and lack of access to the internet. In Jordan, some Palestinian students are left behind due to a lack of information on scholarships and application processes. In India, and despite a governmental directive, the number of university students from lower castes and rural populations lags behind.

Even if equity and access are ensured in policies, the concerns that arise include: access to ‘what’ and to ‘what end’? It is evident that access does not guarantee success. One clear example is in France where access to university is legally guaranteed for all students, but where there is also a high drop-out rate at the end of the first year of studies.

Similarly, access does not mean a high-quality learning opportunity and neither does it ensure true intellectual metamorphosis or academic freedom for that matter.

Academic freedom risks have been reported in the case of Chinese branch campuses as well as in universities in Eastern Europe, for example, in Hungary. If quality teaching, pastoral and academic support, graduation rates and academic freedom are not part of students’ experiences, we should question whether the promise of access to higher education is a con.

Affirmative action

It is, of course, encouraging to see global, regional and national policies being adopted to help the disadvantaged.

Some examples include:
  • • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number four;
  • • The European Union 2015 Ministerial Conference in Yerevan and the 2017 renewed EU agenda for higher education;
  • • The third National Access Plan for higher education (2015-2019) in Ireland;
  • • The United Kingdom Higher Education and Research Act 2017;
  • • The French higher education White Paper 2017 (despite the fact the country insists on the historical division between its elite grandes écoles and universities);
  • • The Swedish revision of higher education admission policies in 2016;
  • • The Austrian 2017 consultation to integrate higher education institutions’ social impact into discussions of their performance;
  • • Initiatives in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania to help increase women’s participation;
  • • The Mexican ministry of education’s additional educational services for disadvantaged areas;
  • • The Brazilian law to reserve spaces for disabled and Afro-Brazilian students in universities.

Are they sufficient?

Theodor Adorno once said Walt Disney was the most dangerous man in America because his animations create an illusionary world with magic and happy endings that are deceiving and unreal and reinforce the hegemony and power of the capitalist world.

In a similar vein, access to higher education can be a delusionary promise if inequalities are persistently reproduced in our minds, actions, social contracts and institutions and in policies that are not translated into actions.

It may be an empty political gesture if parallel practical strategies are not adopted to ensure quality of teaching and learning processes and to establish support systems for students’ success. If universities have even a slight concern about fairness, they need to help reform the ideologies, attitudes and organisation of our education systems that underpin inequality.

Otherwise, we risk siding with Disney and promoting a Cinderella syndrome by continuing to promote “access to higher education” when we actually have no magic wand to guarantee intellectual maturity, academic success, social mobility and better lives and professional opportunities to at least a majority of students, if not all.

Dr Juliette Torabian is a senior international adviser in education and sustainable development. Her research mainly focuses on comparative higher education (policy and governance), social justice and gender equality.