Asia-Europe report warns of worsening HE access post-pandemic

A newly released report warns that focused and consistent policies are needed to respond to a possible worsening of access and equity in higher education for disadvantaged groups following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report draws on a survey of national policies in 47 member countries of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) process – a policy dialogue forum between European and Asian countries – and is produced by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) based in Singapore and the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) in the United Kingdom.

It says less than a third (30%) of the countries have specific higher education equity strategies, and only 34% have specific targets related to access and success in higher education of equity target groups.

The report, ASEM National Equity Policies in Higher Education 2021, released ahead of the eighth ASEM Education Ministers’ Meeting on 15 December and the fourth World Access to Higher Education Day on 17 November, notes that no country in the world has achieved the target of access and success in higher education equitability.

This target was established from a study of 70 countries across the world to look at whether policy commitments were in place, how such policies would be delivered, and how progress in promoting equitable access and success was assessed.

ASEF liaised with national ministries responsible for higher education and experts in equitable access and success in higher education for the survey and data input to the report over the period from September 2020 to July 2021.

“The data presented in the report provides crucial information for evidence-based policy-making and recommendations on how governments can make higher education on a national level as well as on a regional level between Asia and Europe more equitable,” Leonie Nagarajan, director of the education department at ASEF, told University World News.

Effect of pandemic on higher education equity

The report points to some good examples from both Asia and Europe in tackling access and equity issues in higher education. It nonetheless warns of problems ahead as the regions recover from the pandemic, which has hit higher education badly.

“In 84% of countries COVID-19 has had a significant impact on policies related to equitable access and success,” the report said.

“The effects of the pandemic on the economic situation of low-income families may lead them to not be able to afford to go to higher education now,” warned NEON Director Graeme Atherton, who analysed the data and compiled the report.

“Girls in some low-income countries who have missed school have not returned and the resources available in universities and governments to support equitable access work may be reduced as countries deal with the post-COVID fallout,” he said. In another University World News article this week, Atherton calls for a global approach to reduce inequality.

Among the good examples cited in the report are Malaysia’s 2015-2025 Higher Education Blueprint equity plan with five stated aspirations. Because, as the report says, “it includes a commitment to reduce achievement gaps in terms of urban-rural, socio-economic background and gender by 50%”.

The report also says that in other countries such as Indonesia, Mongolia, Romania and Spain, “a form of commitment to equity is positioned with ministerial decrees or higher education law and associated as well with anti-discriminatory practice”.

Luminita Matei, director general for international relations and European affairs at Romania’s Ministry of National Education, told University World News: “Romania pays close attention to supporting students from rural areas, disadvantaged groups and non-traditional students to participate in tertiary education.”

Measures include subsidised places assigned at each public university, including for high school students from rural areas, and also cover accommodation, meals, rail transport and medical insurance subsidies to students.

“The dedicated places are allocated on an annual basis to each public university,” she said, adding that at least 30% of the scholarship fund allocated to universities from the state budget is designated for the category of social scholarships.

Public universities benefit from a separate fund for institutional development. “One of the areas for which institutional development projects can be submitted is to increase social equity and inclusion, and access to higher education, including those related to career counselling and guidance,” Matei said.

Need to change mindsets

It is not just funding that matters in creating access and equity in national higher education systems. Governments need to work with disadvantaged groups to change mindsets and guide them towards higher education as an empowerment tool.

To achieve this, higher education authorities need to work at the high school and community level, the report notes.

Thailand has quotas for ethnic and local disadvantaged community students to enter public and autonomous higher education institutions. The report points out that when done consistently over a period of time, outreach work can “have a real impact on equitable access to higher education”.

Somkiat Kamolpun, group director for global human capital development at the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation in Thailand, told University World News: “Our programme may alleviate the equity issue and provide an opportunity for ethnic minority and handicapped students. However, having a real impact is yet to be determined.

“It is because the higher education institutions which provide quotas to these students are among the best and most prestigious universities in Thailand, the admission requirements are still high,” he notes, adding that the quotas are still limited to about 700 a year and thus deserving students could still miss out.

Thailand uses student loan schemes as the main tool for increasing higher education access. Scholarship schemes are also available for students in remote areas, particularly the southern part of Thailand, to cover tuition fees and accommodation.

When asked whether these loan schemes could become an added burden for graduates from poor families, Somkiat argued that the financial burden is expected to be minimal for students because “students will start to make repayments [only] when their income reaches a minimum threshold of 15,000 Baht (US$460) a month. There is also a two-year grace period for graduates.”

Expanding existing programmes

In Australia, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) introduced in 2011 has provided funding to universities to increase higher education participation of domestic students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and support their retention and success.

Since 2021, HEPPP has been expanded under the Australian government’s Job-ready Graduates Package to support students from regional and remote Australian communities and Indigenous students.

Based on partnerships between higher education institutions and secondary schools, France’s Code de l’Education – Code for Success – scheme is targeted mainly at students attending secondary schools in urban underprivileged neighbourhoods or isolated rural areas.

It aims to increase the academic ambitions of middle and high school students and broaden their horizons, introducing them to the diversity of possible paths into higher education.

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Education established the Pacific Education Support Fund and the Pacific Education Innovation Fund to help community organisations that assist learners and their families to meet the educational and well-being needs of Pacific Island communities, which are among the most disadvantaged groups in the country.

David Robie, a former professor of Pacific journalism and founding director of the Pacific Media Centre in Auckland, says both these initiatives are welcomed within the wider Pasifika communities in New Zealand. They come under the umbrella of the 10-year Action Plan for Pacific Education 2020-2030, which is being implemented to boost Pacific education during the COVID-19 recovery programme.

“At a time when New Zealand’s entire education system has taken a huge hit because of the pandemic, they are seen as supporting life-long strategies across the education system to help advance Pacific learners and their families,” he told University World News.

“The innovative fund is hoped to be a big boost for Pacific bilingual and immersion education projects. It is also expected to produce valuable insights into how the New Zealand education system can be more creatively responding to the needs of Pacific learners,” says Robie.

He added that the support fund offers new apprenticeship initiatives, and “opens up ongoing educational and training pathways to help students transition into the workforce”.

Report recommendations

The ASEM report’s recommendations include the need for member countries to explore designing specific strategies to address access and equity, and also to have clear practice and progress targets.

Institutions and teaching unions need to be included in strategy design and implementation, and in outreach work to change attitudes towards higher education in some communities with a lower socio-economic background.

This also needs to be piloted in more countries, led by national higher education institutions.

The report concluded that “action must be taken now” to ensure that in the post-pandemic period existing inequalities in access and success in higher education will not worsen.

Graeme Atherton told University World News: “The most important bottleneck, though, is political will – policy-makers need to be convinced that this is an area which requires focused, dedicated investment and they then need to incentivise or compel their universities to also take on board a strategic commitment.”

Preliminary findings of the report were presented to the eighth ASEF Regional Conference on Higher Education in September 2021, a meeting of senior education officials from ASEM countries, and includes their feedback.

“At the upcoming eighth ASEM Education Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok, the ministers will adopt the ASEM Education Strategy 2030 and Action Plan. We hope that the report will be recognised in the outcome statement of the ministerial meeting,” ASEF’s Nagarajan said.

This article is the second in a series in collaboration with ASEF and EU-SHARE in the run-up to the ASEM Education Ministers’ Meeting in December 2021. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content. The first article in the series can be found here.