Weighing up the good and bad news on widening HE access

The good news is that equity and inclusion are becoming a higher priority for governments around the world, according to a variety of surveys and new data presented at the World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) 2021 conference.

The bad news is that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education of all children and students and threatens to reverse the recent progress into higher education of those coming from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Leonie Nagarajan, director of the education department at the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), an intergovernmental process of 51 countries focusing on higher education cooperation and teacher professionalisation, told the conference that their data showed completion rates and achievement levels at elementary and secondary education levels are increasing.

“This is leading to more qualified people and a more diverse student body to meet matriculation thresholds for entering higher education, but to transform this success to a more inclusive student mix in universities still requires high-level policy commitments from higher education institutions and governments,” Nagarajan told participants at the event.

Performance agreements

“So, we’re recommending that policymakers introduce performance agreements between higher education institutions and government, with targets for equitable access and success, and we also want them to fund national coordinated programmes of engagement between higher education institutions and learners from low-income and other under-represented groups.”

Defining equity targets groups depends on the country, but most cases include students from low-income or lower socio-economic backgrounds and disabled students. Then there’s a big mix to choose from including gender groups, indigenous populations, old and mature learners, refugees and students with care experience, orphans and sometimes people from rural backgrounds, she said.

The most common ‘non-monetary’ instruments used by governments to try to tackle inequity in access to higher education are preferential admission arrangements followed by national outreach programmes, with bridging courses also used by a few countries.

But ‘monetary’ instruments are much more widely used, with scholarships way out in front, followed by grants and loans, said Nagarajan.

Lack of data

Lack of reliable and up-to-date information means there are major gaps in understanding equitable access and success in Asia and Europe due to insufficient data on participation and outcome by background characteristic.

“Less than a third of countries are collecting data on students from priority equity groups and there is also a lack of data on temporary policy measures as a consequence of COVID-19 measures and impact,” she said.

Ninoslav Šcukanec Schmidt, executive director of the Institute for the Development of Education in Zagreb, Croatia, and co-chair of the Bologna Follow Up Group on Social Dimension, gave the conference a European perspective on the challenges facing government and universities in tackling inequity in access to higher education.

He said their research confirmed that ‘at-risk’ students were disproportionally affected by the impact of COVID-19 with almost 60% reporting that they do not always have reliable internet and 40% of students who worked during their studies losing their jobs.

Feeling frustrated and anxious

Students told of being frequently feeling frustrated and anxious in their academic activities after on-site classes were cancelled and reported lower levels of well-being, particularly among those lacking a supportive social network.

“The short- and medium-term impact of the pandemic will reduce equal access to higher education, lower the level of participation of at-risk students in higher education and cause long-term scarring effects on young people under the age of 25 – the COVID generation. It will also result in an unprecedented decline in social mobility and rising economic and educational inequalities,” he warned.

He suggested a number of ways forward, including some ideas from the ‘Principles and Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA’, drawn up from 2018-20 by the Bologna Follow-up Group which he co-chairs.

Move beyond ‘widening participation’ clauses

These include ensuring that “the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should correspond to the heterogeneous social profile of society at large” and, moving beyond adopting ‘widening participation clauses’, instead, ensure that social inclusion is integrated by public authorities and higher education institutions into the core education mission.

He recommended both a top-down approach of “building capacities of public authorities for the social dimension”, rather than just focusing on compliance, and developing a system for monitoring and organising peer support.

At the same time, a bottom-up approach should identify universities committed to the social dimension and develop a network that can organise capacity-building events and strengthen other alliances to scale up and connect the social dimension agenda to the European Universities Initiative and other similar global networks.

Bulgaria exempts some students from fees

Dr Ivana Radonova, from the Higher Education Directorate at the Ministry of Education and Science in Bulgaria and co-chair of the Bologna Implementation Coordination Group, said governments were responding to the access challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Bulgarian government has exempted certain groups of students from paying fees and provided state-guaranteed loans as well as subsidies for accommodation and transport, she said.

Among the new initiatives was the development of indicators for assessing the quality of higher education related to the access of students from vulnerable groups and monitoring the quality of their learning progress.

Legislative changes have been made to the Credit Transfer and Accumulation System and the validation of prior learning and micro-credentials has been introduced into the higher education system.

France tackles access and high dropout rate

Ellen Thompson, head of the orientation mission at the French Ministry for Higher Education, told the conference that, despite being an advanced western European country, France had faced its own set of challenges with equity and success among university students.

Too many students were dropping out before graduating and there were barriers preventing students from lower socio-economic groups from gaining access to courses they wanted to study.

“This is despite offering scholarships and having low tuition fees and guaranteed loans,” she said.

But, following a new law on orientation and success for students in 2018, a new ‘ecosystem’ had been created between schools and higher education, she said. This means universities now consider the family background of applicants as well as their grades and interests.

This has “bumped-up” the number of students from lower-income and more vocational backgrounds and benefits about 12,000 applicants per year, said Thompson.

Secondary school students also get 54 hours of ‘orientation’ to help them make the best and most suitable choice in where they go when they leave high school and this has brought in other parts of governments, including the ministries of labour and employment, agriculture and defence.

Thompson said it had been a success in terms of widening access to higher education among the less privileged and it had also started to make inroads into France’s notoriously high student dropout rates, with the percentage successfully completing their studies at university going up from 40% in 2016 to 45% in 2019, the year after the new law was introduced.

“We are eagerly waiting to see the latest figures, but I think we can say we are making progress,” she told the WAHED conference.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at