World Access to HE Day – Access needs practical solutions, money

International collaboration, financial and strategic support and government policy consistency that endures beyond changes in political administrations are vital to maintain accelerating global gains in access to higher education, heard delegates at the global summit for World Access to Higher Education Day or WAHED, held in Scotland on 26 November.

Academics from 15 different countries attending the WAHED summit at the University of Edinburgh on 26 November were also informed that valuable lessons from institutions promoting equal 'access and success' to a diverse range of potential students and academics were being jeopardised by a lack of rigorous impact studies.

Good practice

In a conference session titled “Equitable Access to HE: The global challenge”, former coordinator of tertiary education policy at the World Bank, Jamil Salmi, flagged up Australia, Austria, Colombia, South Africa and Vietnam as culturally disparate examples of good higher education access practice, in a world where low income and marginalisation can still determine success in tertiary education studies and work.

He said research suggests that Australia has some of the most comprehensive equity policies in the world; Austria pioneers gender policies and support for refugees; and Colombia's student loans and retention policies have developed equity in a country once crippled by insurgency, for instance.

South Africa, said Salmi, was addressing long-lasting inequalities after years of apartheid strife. The faculty of commerce at the University of Cape Town, for example, has used trailblazing programmes to halve black student drop-out rates.

“Equity is a priority theme in the higher education discourse of most governments,” he added.

Launching the 2019 WAHED research report How Policy Can Widen Access to HE at the summit, he added that it was “particularly crucial” that governments and higher education sectors had “enough resources to implement a national equity agenda effectively”.

WAHED is organised by the National Education Opportunities Network or NEON, the UK’s professional organisation widening access to higher education, supported by NCUK, the trading arm of the Northern Consortium charity.

Its goals are to spread higher education across the world, especially to countries with limited opportunities to learn and teach at a tertiary level. It is supported by 100 organisations from 30 countries in its endeavours to kick-start national and international action targeting inclusive access.

Patchy progress

The message from NEON Director Dr Graeme Atherton was that progress was patchy and characterised by uneven commitment from policy-makers.

Salmi cited, for instance, how Vietnam officially targets a range of groups to boost higher education participation but needs to invest more public resources to implement its plan.

The need to back access goals with financial resources was reiterated by Thomas Jørgensen, European University Association senior policy coordinator, who welcomed that universities were now often paying closer attention to practical details when promoting equity, diversity and inclusion.

Sir Peter Scott, commissioner for fair access in the Scottish government, said that Scotland’s policy of waiving higher education fees for European Union nationals resident in Scotland has had a positive impact on inclusion in Scotland’s higher education.

However, Atherton insisted that financial support was not the only 'driver' influencing the situation – innovation and firm policy pledges were also important.

Anthony Gartner, associate director for student equity and accessibility services at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, discussed the importance of targeting groups under-represented in higher education in their early years, to improve their primary and secondary school performance and boost their ultimate uptake of higher education.

Professor Colm Harmon, vice-principal for students at the University of Edinburgh, agreed. He recalled his own access to free education 30 years ago as the first in his family to attend university, even though at the time he ended up “hating the alien environment”.

Atherton added that encouraging all countries to “collect data on who goes to higher education by all characteristics of social background, and setting long term targets to increase the participation and success of these groups, would be a start”.

Salmi pulled the strands together, calling for “a high degree of alignment among leadership goals, policy goals, policy instruments and allocated resources”.

For long-running success in integrating under-represented groups in higher education it was “important to stay the course and carry on with both financial and non-monetary equity policies in a consistent way, independently of who is in government”.

Uplifting stories

Delegates heard uplifting stories from academics and students from countries where education has delivered progress after their societies had been compromised by war, prejudice and bigotry.

University of Edinburgh Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program Director, Johanna Holtan, introduced Andira Khara, an MSc student in African and international development and refugee from Sudan, who has lived in refugee camps in Kenya.

Khara said education had seeded hope for her, despite the language barriers and lack of teachers, classrooms and basic educational materials available in camps.

So practical work in these communities can yield dividends. “Refugees in Africa are a different group expressing different challenges. Focusing on refugee students and giving them that hope is important," she said.

The Rwandan experience

Professor Phil Cotton, vice-chancellor of the University of Rwanda, spoke of how the need to rebuild post-genocide Rwanda had directed educational policy and said that “love and compassion” for fellow humans was an obvious starting point to boost inclusion.

After the civil war, revenge killings ensued and “there had to be a way of bringing an end to that and that was one of the things the country could not fail in and the country has not failed in”.

He explained how the six-year-old University of Rwanda had merged 14 public institutions to create one, erasing historic divisions between higher education bodies in his country.

Now, with 29,000 undergraduates, 407 PhD students and 177 members of staff undertaking PhDs abroad, “we have created this huge capacity in a very short time”. This has aided inclusion, with the UN refugee agency UNHCR in 2017 praising its ability to properly teach refugees.

“We have to start universities with a value base; compassion is needed to show care and we need to show love," Cotton said.

Personal inspiration

Of course, some inspirations to widen access to higher education can be deeply personal.

Dr Azizullah Amir, founder and president of Moraa, an educational institution in Kabul in Afghanistan that focuses on advancing women, recalled how, when his mother required urgent medical help for a serious skin infection, she refused to see a male doctor out of modesty and consequently died. This prompted him, an eminent cardiologist, to establish this all-female education complex.

WAHED’s goal is to make such initiatives a matter of policy, and successful policy to boot.