Equity needs a strategy and enough financial resources

If African universities want to achieve equity and inclusion, they must have a vision along with a robust, well-resourced strategic plan to overcome the financial and non-monetary barriers faced by students from under-represented groups, including women, the poor, disabled and refugee students.

This emerged from an interview with Jamil Salmi, a former World Bank tertiary education coordinator, who, on 18 May, provided a talk, ‘To Belong or Not to Belong: That is the Question. Equity, Inclusion and Pluralism’ at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) themed ‘Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future’ in Barcelona, Spain.

Status of equity inclusion

Salmi told University World News: “The paradox is that, even though Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest tertiary education enrolment rate among all continents (10%), we still witness large disparities of access and success among population groups.”

In Kenya, for example, the probability of accessing university is 49 times higher for youth from the wealthiest quintile than youth from the poorest income quintile, according to Salmi.

“Together with South Asia, Africa is the only continent where women still remain under-represented in higher education, especially in programmes for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics [STEM], and also among senior academics, and in university leadership positions.

“Students with disabilities and refugee students also face discrimination,” Salmi added.

Why care about access?

“Why do we need to care about access to higher education? For two reasons: first, because the right to education is a fundamental human right. You cannot have a democracy without social justice, and you cannot have social justice if you do not offer equal opportunities to access tertiary education and be academically successful,” Salmi explained.

“We must remember that disparity statistics are not about abstract concepts, we are talking about real people who are denied the opportunity to study because of circumstances beyond their control (income, geographical location, ethnic origin, gender, and so on) … Being denied this right hurts the dignity of people and destroys their hope,” Salmi said.

“The second reason for eliminating disparities, equally important, is that, by denying access to millions of people, our societies lose so much talent. It is a huge waste at both the individual and societal level,” he pointed out.


“The first bottleneck is at the basic education level as what happens or does not happen in primary and secondary education shapes the pipeline of incoming high school graduates and the pool from which universities and other tertiary education institutions can recruit,” he said.

“Then you have additional barriers at the tertiary education level along with all the financial barriers faced by low-income students when they reach university: high tuition fees, high living expenses, high opportunity costs and, often, lower labour market prospects, because they don’t have the right social connections.

“On top of that, you have many non-monetary barriers such as the lack of academic preparation, lack of motivation and lack of information,” Salmi emphasised.

Strategic plan

“African countries must be fully committed to eliminating disparities at all levels of education,” Salmi stated.

“At the tertiary education level, it is essential to have a vision and a robust strategic plan to overcome the financial and non-monetary barriers faced by youth from under-represented groups,” he said. “This plan must be well-resourced, with sufficient financial aid to ensure that no academically qualified student is denied access for lack of financial means.

“Any form of discrimination should be strictly prohibited and punished with special attention to sexual harassment. Also, admission mechanisms must not discriminate against students from traditionally under-served groups under the guise of meritocracy.

“A growing number of universities, polytechnics and colleges have begun to pay serious attention to equity and inclusion through providing additional financial aid, together with academic and psychological support to prevent at-risk students from dropping out,” noted Salmi.

For example, in Africa, Ashesi University in Ghana is a need-blind admission university that has received international recognition for its innovative multidisciplinary curriculum aiming at developing critical thinking, leadership skills, ethical reasoning, and effective communication skills.

In South Africa, the leading universities have worked on becoming more inclusive and reverse the discriminatory patterns of the apartheid era.

In Colombia (South America), Uniminuto was set up 30 years ago to offer good quality higher education a low cost in urban and rural marginal areas.

Today, it has 120,000 students all over the country, and has been described as the most public of Colombia’s private universities.

“Having a senior academic leader directly responsible for the equity and inclusion agenda helps, together with careful monitoring and evaluation of which measures work best to help students from traditionally under-represented groups,” Salmi said.

African universities, he added, must be careful not to sacrifice equity in the name of academic excellence.