Country responses to equity still a challenge – UNESCO global report

Representation matters – in particular in education. This has been emphasised again by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in its Global Education Monitoring Report 2020 titled Inclusion and Education: All means all, which includes data on higher education participation rates and scholarships.

A lack of representation in teacher training in higher education – in terms of women and people with disabilities – translates into fewer female and disabled students pursuing teaching as a field of study. For instance, the report shows fewer students with disabilities pursue a university education and still fewer graduate, thus being unable to become teachers.

In a similar vein, the scarcity of female science and mathematics teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa is a consequence of low female representation in these fields of study in higher education.

The question of representation – diversity – in higher education manifests itself in various aspects of the system, including the access of disadvantaged students to education who face multiple obstacles in gaining access to higher education, which include information and networking barriers.

“Counsellors and advisers are particularly important for these learners, yet minorities, students with disabilities, those living in rural or poor areas and other disadvantaged students are often the least likely to receive adequate counselling on higher education opportunities,” says the report.

“Recognising and accepting diversity is an important challenge. Counsellors’ perceptions, socio-cultural biases and gender stereotypes can affect students’ education and career choices. This may explain women’s under-representation in tertiary science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

But countries’ responses to equity and inclusion remain a challenge. The report indicates that just 11% of African countries have formulated comprehensive tertiary education equity and inclusion strategies.

One in every four countries has some form of an affirmative action programme to help the marginalised get access to university education. The report recommends that all education actors widen their understanding of inclusive education and states that this is an opportune time to do so as the world seeks to rebuild with more inclusive education systems.

Also, many countries still have to establish more inclusive education systems. Sound legislative frameworks, often inspired by international commitments, are a sign of progress, but they often take time to establish.

Noteworthy in the time of COVID-19 is that about 40% of low- and lower middle-income countries have not taken any measures to support learners at risk of exclusion during the crisis.

Regional enrolment rates

The report says the global participation in higher education, reached 224 million in 2018, equivalent to a gross enrolment ratio of 38%. Shares ranged from 9% in low-income to 75% in high-income countries.

Globally, 19% of the students are enrolled in short-cycle programmes, 68% in bachelor degree programmes, 11% in masters and 1% in doctoral programmes.

East Africa and Southeast Asia, the report says, have the highest share enrolled in short-cycle university programmes (33%); Europe and North America have the highest number of students in masters programmes(20%). North Africa and West Asia have had the most rapid expansions of tertiary education participation since 2013.

Yet country experiences vary.

Tunisia had among the highest participation rates as recently as 2010, but has since stagnated at around 35%. In other countries in the Northern African region, such as Algeria, women have been the main beneficiaries of rapid increases in tertiary education enrolment. Morocco, with one of the most gender-unequal tertiary enrolment ratios in the early 1990s (three women for every 10 men), reached parity in 2017.

As recently as 2011, Morocco had the same low participation rate as Sudan (16%) but, while the latter stagnated, Morocco more than doubled participation in seven years to 36%.

Unequal playing field

Even where more women than men are enrolled in higher learning education, they may face an unequal playing field.

The under-representation of women in higher education structures in many countries signals institutional cultures that are not inclusive or not geared towards broader social and cultural change for greater gender equality.

Conventional faculty recruitment processes that reward linear, full-time, uninterrupted academic trajectories contribute to women’s under-representation in senior academia, even when they outnumber men as students. Women are more likely to be disadvantaged by norms that fail to recognise competing commitments such as care responsibilities.

Scholarship reach

Sixty countries had scholarships, bursaries or grant programmes; 45 had student loan programmes and 40 had tuition fee reduction policies.

While larger student populations attract more scholarship aid, countries with similar student populations differ widely in terms of the average amount of scholarship aid per student. Some lower middle-income countries, such as Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) in Africa and the Republic of Moldova in eastern Europe, receive the highest level of scholarship aid per capita.

Overall, however, it is the small island developing states that receive some of the highest per capita scholarship flows. Pacific islands receive far more scholarship aid per capita than Caribbean islands, with Sub-Saharan African island states in the middle. Highly specialised degrees are seldom available in those countries and necessitate study abroad.

The top 50 scholarship aid providers offered some 30,000 new scholarships in 2019 for 2020 entry. This amounts to 94% of the total number of scholarships targeted at Sub-Saharan African students. Undergraduate scholarships accounted for 56%.

Scholarships reached the equivalent of 0.4% of the 8.1 million Sub-Saharan African tertiary education students.

The European Union’s Intra-Africa Academic Mobility Scheme supports tertiary education cooperation with African countries to increase the number of highly trained professionals in the region.

The next-largest government providers were South Africa, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Egypt, India, Germany and Japan. International organisations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the African Union, the European Union and the World Bank, were also prominent in the top 25.

Corporations, including public enterprises and corporate foundations, represented five of the top 50 providers. Although aid for scholarships has been stagnant since 2010, opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa have increased since 2015 and will likely increase over the next five years.

Through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals there are calls for monitoring the number of scholarships available to developing countries, but there is no data collection mechanism. Past editions of the Global Education Monitoring Report proposed ways to fill the gap, but there has been insufficient funding interest.

The report recommends inclusive education for all learners, no matter their identity or background. This will require countries to establish sound legislative frameworks aligned to international commitments.