We need a global approach to reduce higher education inequality

Reducing inequalities in access and success in higher education was always going to be slow work, but what data we have shows that glacial progress is being made and may be imperilled by COVID-19. It is time to accept that a new approach is needed that sees this as a genuinely global rather than national problem, if the work that is happening to address such inequalities – which may be growing – is going to bear fruit.

Data on who participates in higher education by social background is not collected systematically across the world. This makes judging progress difficult.

The equity groups that are prioritised differ across countries. In some parts of the world, living in a rural area or ethnicity shape participation more than socio-economic background, and in others the opposite is the case. There is also a range of other groups – such as people with disabilities, older learners etc – that fall within the scope of equitable access and success work.

However, while the gaps in data collection are an issue, where data does exist the picture is a troubling one.

In Europe, the Eurostudent project has been collecting data on access and participation via student surveys in 26 countries since 2000. Comparing countries across the last three rounds of the survey reveals that only Lithuania and Georgia show a strong rising trend, with growth in the percentage of students whose parents did not have tertiary education.

Looking outside of the Global North and richer countries, overall enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa has barely increased since 2000 and is still under 10%.

Work by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific looking at higher education attainment for the poorest groups in 14 of the lowest income countries over the 2000s, shows that it has declined over this period in 12 of the countries.

There are some positives, with significant progress being made in Latin America over the 2000s, but this is balanced against very little progress in Central America.

The time lag in data collection and reporting is a huge issue. It will take some time to see what the impact of COVID has been on this already worrying picture.

But data from the United States reported in University World News shows that enrolments for students from equity groups – particularly black students – have fallen dramatically. This is especially frustrating given that progress was being made in US admissions of low-income students, at least before the pandemic.

It is even harder to find any systematic data on graduate outcomes – that is, degree qualification or employment outcome by social background. There is data on completion or drop-out, but it is not a strong metric for success as such. What data exists, though, shows that students from equity groups are more likely to leave their studies early.

Day of action

While progress in access is difficult to see, the level of engagement in this issue by universities, governments and others is significant. We are now approaching the fourth World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) on 17 November – the international day to raise global awareness around inequalities in access and success in higher education.

After this year’s event, more than 500 universities, governments and charities from over 80 countries have organised events related to equitable access and success, or been involved in one of our online conferences, and each year more organisations have participated in WAHED.

Research produced related to WAHED has also shown that across the world commitment to addressing inequalities in access and success exists. Our 2020 report, supported by the Sutton Trust in the United Kingdom, showed how 20 leading universities in six countries are undertaking projects with schools to give low-income and other young people from equity priority groups additional support to help them get the grades they need to enter institutions.

At the policy level, the majority of the countries in the world that admit the largest number of students have some form of equitable access policy. For instance, in India there are places in the higher education system reserved for students from lower caste groups and in China preferential admission is given to students from some rural areas.

Research undertaken by the Asia-Europe Foundation, reported in University World News recently, shows that in 47 countries higher education equity features in government-produced higher education policy documents.

The impact of university programmes does need to be better assessed and government commitment has to translate into action and awareness of inequalities in access and success, including activities to address them.

Sharing best practice

However, in the face of such an intransigent challenge, exacerbated as it is by the pandemic, this work will not be sufficient. It needs to be expanded. It also has to be framed differently, with a much stronger international element.

The practical focus of equity work will always be on students within countries and their issues are often acutely local, associated with their community or town. But the challenge in supporting them to progress to higher education has huge amounts of commonality across nations.

There is a desperate need for greater exchange of knowledge and practice between governments, universities and others to enable those concerned with this issue to develop the best local solutions with what will always be limited resources.

Global dialogue and exchange of knowledge are firmly entrenched in how higher education works across disciplines and are at the centre of how society is looking to tackle major challenges, from climate change to inequality. The evidence that we do have shows that we are simply not making enough progress in addressing inequalities in access and success at present, through seeing it as a domestic issue.

We are proud of the work that WAHED has done. It is enabling activities and dialogue to happen that would not have occurred otherwise. But it is not enough. To position equitable access and success in higher education as a shared challenge across countries, continued year-round dialogue is required, underpinned by focused efforts to identify, share and adapt best practice along with systematic global monitoring of progress.

The stakes are high. Every year, millions of people who have the potential to benefit from higher education are not doing so. This reinforces social divisions and prevents societies developing while making addressing global challenges much harder. Unless universities across the world are willing to recognise this, they risk being on the wrong side of many of the forces that will shape the world in the 21st century.

Professor Graeme Atherton is head, Centre for Levelling Up, and director, National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), University of West London, United Kingdom. He is also convenor of the World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED).