Moving from rhetoric to action on widening access to HE

It is not surprising that, as reported in last week’s University World News, progress in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education is falling short of target.

As we approach the second World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) on 26 November, the evidence suggests that, while there is a growing community of institutions and individuals taking forward innovative approaches to widening access to higher education across the world, deeper global commitments across the sector are lacking.

The efforts to engage those institutions across the world in WAHED have been extensive. Engagement is as easy as offering a statement of support, but for the majority of those institutions approached, even that appears a step too far.

On one level the commitment is not lacking. The concern expressed by global education leaders gathered earlier this month in Paris to discuss the progress towards SDG 4 is undoubtedly genuine. It is also clear that the problems in the school system are at the root of many of the disparities in access to and success in higher education.

A huge challenge

Other research released this month also shows more promising signs, at least where systems in Europe are concerned. A new report released by the European University Association shows that across the continent institutions are engaging with this agenda. However, there is more work to do here to identity whether, as with national policies, scratching below the surface reveals the results to back up the commitment.

The overall picture is that, while the higher education sector wants to show that it is concerned about the inequalities it is contributing to, the scale of what is needed to really tackle these inequalities is too large for it to grasp. The size of the challenge, though, does not mean that the only option is despair, or a reliance on a continual stream of worthy rhetoric.

Towards action

The last two years of building WAHED suggest that there are things that can be done. The starting point here is, as with any daunting problem, to break it down into smaller parts. There are many of these smaller parts where this problem is concerned.

They cover aspects of pretty much everything higher education does, from the staff it hires and how much it costs to the way campuses are designed (and whether there should even be any).

But there are three areas where specific work could be undertaken which may help address inequality in access and success on a global scale.

The first is to significantly advance what we know about the subject. There is still relatively little research that is looking systematically at patterns of higher education participation by social background and the collection of this data nationally varies hugely in terms of depth and quality. There is, perhaps, even less research that looks at what interventions are having an impact.

New research to be released to mark this year’s WAHED by Jamil Salmi, former head of tertiary education at the World Bank, and supported by the Lumina Foundation, takes an in-depth look at access and equity policies in five countries. It argues that even where there is policy attention placed on equity and access, there is a lack of research which measures the impact of these policies.

A cohort of global change-makers

The second area where more activity could make a difference is increasing the capacity of staff in higher education institutions, governments and charities to address equitable access challenges.

Defining the skills and knowledge needed to try and make a difference in this area and equipping those across all levels in key stakeholder organisations with these things is crucial if change is going to happen.

Alongside this year’s WAHED, we will be delivering our first global capacity-building course, which is supported by the Asia-Europe Foundation. It will bring together 30 colleagues from across sectors to participate in an intensive course designed to kick-start the formation of a global cohort of change-makers in the equitable access area.

Finally, institutions and university networks have to take a lead to initiate both collaborative conversation and action. Networks in particular have an important role here in ensuring that equitable access is a central part of their portfolio.

This is happening in some cases, for example, the European University Association has shown its commitment with the new research released this month and mentioned above. However, for too many networks, equitable access appears to be a peripheral concern at present.

Dr Graeme Atherton is the director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) in the United Kingdom. NEON is leading on World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED), which takes place on 26 November.