The pandemic is hindering access and retention in HE

“We still have a long road to travel before having universal access to higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is despite the fact that access has more than doubled in two decades from a gross rate of 23% in 2000 to 53% in 2018.”

This statement by Francesc Pedró, director of the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, was the parting shot of the conference “Inequalities in Access to Higher Education by Disadvantaged Populations in the Latin American and Caribbean Region in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic”.

The conference was the region’s contribution to World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED). The two-hour conference was held via Zoom from Caracas, Venezuela.

Pedró launched UNESCO’s report Toward Universal Access in Higher Education, highlighting its findings about Latin America and the Caribbean. He underlined that it was the region where access to higher education had increased the most: from 23% of each group that registers in a higher education establishment in 2000 to 53% in 2018, but there are huge variations between countries.

For example, in Colombia the expansion of access to higher education went from less than 5% in 2002 to above 25% in 2028 and, in Honduras, from an average below 3% between 1999 and 2003 to an average of 10% in 2014-18.

Though in Latin America women enrol and graduate in higher education at the same rate as men, in most countries of the region the greater enrolment increase between 2000 and 2018 was among women – it went up from a gross rate of 19% in 2000 to 41% in 2018. This means that more than one in two women of a given age enrol in higher education.

Pedró cautioned, however, that enrolment of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees is still lagging behind. In Chile, for example, women account for less than a quarter of all STEM degrees. As for men, their enrolment in the same period went from slightly below 20% to slightly over 20%.

Inequity keeps rising: currently, access to higher education is below 10% in the lowest income percentile compared with 70% in the highest ones. Disadvantaged ethnic groups are 15% less likely to access higher education. In Mexico, for example, only a quarter of indigenous students from 18 to 22 years of age were enrolled in universities in 2010, compared with more than a third of their non-indigenous counterparts.

However, UNESCO’s report notes that access has increased for all levels of income and that half the population with lower income has increased its share in the total number of higher education students, thanks to strategies for increasing the access of indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples in higher education.

The countries where inequality in higher education access was reduced the most were Venezuela, Argentina and Chile, the latter thanks to the introduction in 2006 of government-backed student loans.

The report says that 56% of the higher education access gap between the highest and the lowest quintile in Latin America can be explained by, firstly, the lower graduation rate in secondary education for the lowest income quintile and, secondly, by the lack of preparation of some students who finish secondary school.

Some countries foster access to the most disadvantaged. Brazil’s Constitution guarantees free education according to the capacity of the individual. A national 2012 law guarantees half of all university places in its 63 federal universities to students from state secondary schools. Lower-income students began to receive bonuses on entrance examinations; Afro-descendants and indigenous people were specifically targeted.

Another move to increase diversity in higher education is Latin America’s Universidades Interculturales (UI) designed to address the access problems of indigenous or Afro-descendent populations in countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Nicaragua.

UIs are open to all students but offer programmes based on indigenous culture or knowledge. In 2015, about 11,000 students enrolled in the 11 Mexican UI universities whose students are economically supported by grants. Indigenous women were almost one-and-a-half times the number of male students.

Higher GDP per capita, higher enrolment

The report says that there is evidence that university enrolment tends to increase with the rise of GDP per capita. Economic growth also increases social demands for higher education because it is seen as a path for professional success. On average, urban young people are 22% more likely to attend higher education than their rural counterparts. In the cases of Colombia and Bolivia, the figure goes up to 35%.

“A major challenge is to reduce the number of disadvantaged students failing access to tertiary education,” says UNESCO’s report.

Sandra Regina Almeida, head of the University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, said that her country is very far from reaching full access to higher education: only 17% of 25-year-olds enter higher education and just 4% complete it, but things are looking up: the increase in higher education enrolment went up by 43.7% between 2000 and 2019, mostly in private universities where 75.8% , that is 6.5 million students, are now studying.

In her state, Minas Gerais, the number of students in federal universities went up from 549,000 in 2015 to more than 1.3 million in 2018.

Almeida referred to the 2012 affirmative action law lei de cotas for the federal system in Brazil according to which 50% of the openings in higher education must be for public schools and poor and indigenous students.

She also detailed the inclusion policy in Minas Gerais which includes evening courses, a policy that lasted from 2009 to 2012 of a 10% increase in the grades obtained in the entrance exam by individuals who had attended state schools in the last seven years of elementary and secondary education. Also, those who considered themselves Black/Pardo/Indigenous received an extra 5% bonus, and there is a 2019 law which provides 8.4% of places for the disabled.

The impact of these policies in Minas Gerais has been an increase in access for undergraduates of 43% in 2000 to 67.4% in 2019. About 54% of them are women, mainly in academic degrees, and 43.2% black.

“Brazil’s problems in higher education relate to COVID and to shrinking budgets,” Almeida said. There is a lot of talk about technological inequality because the poorest don’t have the means to go into long-distance learning “which is why students have to be given resources so that they can educate themselves”, Almeida said. She added that the problem is how to bring back those students who dropped out because of the pandemic.

Marcelo Knobel, rector at the University of Campinas (Universidade Estadual de Campinas or UNICAMP), also in Brazil, says that a major mission for the higher education sector is to cater for lifelong learning and increasing access using technology. The major worry brought about by COVID-19 is the retention of students.

UNICAMP is a very selective university, Knobel said. For example, this year 90,000 young people registered for UNICAMP’s entry exam but only 3,300 places were available. The majority of students who gain entry come from paid, private schools and only 8% are from lowest-income families.

To improve equality, two years ago UNICAMP established a quota system for ethnic and black people, which boosted their numbers from zero to 20%.

Another participant in the WAHED Latin America conference was Rodrigo Arim, rector of the University of the Republic or Universidad de la República in Uruguay, which caters for 140,000 undergraduates (up from 61,000 in 1978), that is, for 80% of higher education students in Uruguay.

To increase access, it has opened new sites outside Montevideo, the capital, where 50% of Uruguay’s population lives.

“As COVID-19 has affected the country’s economy negatively, universities are having financial difficulties, as 90% of them are state universities,” Arim said.

To increase access, they are moving to long-distance learning, a process that has accelerated with the COVID pandemic. The problem is that many poor families do not have available space for incorporating technology in their homes.

“Technology needs support from universities if it is to develop adequately in disadvantaged areas,” says Arim.

HE challenges in the Caribbean

Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, which caters for 55,000 students regionally and has campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad Tobago, Barbados and Antigua and is in the process of opening an online campus, said his university has tried hard to move from being an elite university to a democratic one. Now, more than 90% of its students are working-class people.

In his university, 75% are female from a total of 55,000, a reversal from what it was 30 years ago. Males are still a majority in the faculties of law, engineering, medicine, accountancy and sci-tec while women dominate in humanities and social sciences. However, in masters and doctoral degrees, there is a tendency for genders to equalise due to the fact that the majority of women in higher education do not go on to read masters and PhDs.

Beckles underlined that only about 15% of 18- to 35-year-olds in the Caribbean region are enrolled in higher education, “which makes it the lowest in Latin America. At the bottom of the enrolment rate is the English-speaking Caribbean. Spanish, Dutch and French islands [there are more than 18 in the Caribbean, some of them still European colonies] have higher rates,” said Beckles.

“What COVID-19 has done is to make it more difficult for working-class Caribbean students to afford higher education. The pandemic has led to the collapse of the tourism industry and governments have less money to fund higher education. This has led to a 50% collapse in university budgets,” he added.

Beckles explained that the majority of Caribbean states have been independent for the past 50 years, adding that “higher access to higher education is very related to the process of nation-building”, which he defined as sovereignty and economic and social development.

Some 40% of Caribbean university graduates emigrate to the US within five years. “This has to do with the countries’ inability to attract and retain university graduates.” The public (state) sector is downsizing, he explained, almost everywhere. Most of public-sector university students are funded by the government, 100% of them in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago and 80% in Jamaica.

“We do have a very serious shortage of graduates due to little enrolment [as well as] emigration,” said Beckles.

He talked of discussions in the region about the value added by graduates, despite the fact that there is evidence that higher education is a way out of poverty: 80% of low-income higher education graduates have moved out of poverty. Especially for blacks, higher education is the most important pathway to a better standard of living.