Poverty, geography ‘most likely’ reasons for inequality

Quality assurance and accreditation agencies in Sub-Saharan Africa believe that students from low-income backgrounds and those from rural areas are most likely to suffer inequality or exclusion in accessing higher education.

They believe that the groups are the most under-represented and likely to miss out on university education, followed by women and people with disabilities, deserving affirmative consideration in formulation of policies for quality assurance and accreditation.

While this is unlikely in developed countries, where people with disabilities as well as gender are part of the main considerations in achieving equity and education quality standards, it brought out the stark differences that exist between rich and poor countries in terms of the quality and access to university education, a session of the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona, Spain, heard. The session focused on equity processes in accreditation processes.

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

Citing the findings of a global study done in 51 countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Senegal and Mauritania, it showed that, while many quality assurance agencies in the world never saw Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), as priorities in formulating their policies, the same could not be said of Africa, where disparities in access were felt more acutely in comparison to Europe and America, for example.

Why does diversity remain a low priority?

Referring to the survey done at the beginning of 2022 by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation of the United States, council president Cynthia Jackson Hammond said there was no good reason why diversity, equity and inclusion remained a low priority in education policies of many countries around the world.

“Many developed countries have laws that prohibit many forms of discrimination, but having these laws is not the same as implementing DEI in our education policies. Having DEI in your regulations achieves much more than just setting good standards in education,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, she noted, calls for a relook into the DEI concept as, in some regions such as Africa, the pandemic had brought to the fore huge discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots in accessing education.

This is more so when it comes to accessing learning gadgets such as computers and the internet.

Discrepancies in access had also manifested themselves in different UNESCO Global Monitoring reports on equity which showed huge inequalities in access to education between African countries and those in the West, said renowned Moroccan scholar and higher education policy expert Professor Jamil Salmi.

In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, countries, for example, enrolment in universities went up to as high as 70% in some years while, in Africa, it averaged at around 10%.

This was sad, because Africa, he observed, will have the highest human population in the world in the future, which will mean millions of young people left out of university education.

“These discrepancies are even worse at national levels and vary from country to country, with students from poor backgrounds rarely getting opportunities to join universities compared to those from well-off backgrounds,” he noted.

Giving the example of Kenya, he said past studies had shown that students from urban areas and with middle-class parents were 49 times more likely to enrol in universities compared with those from poverty-stricken and rural families.

This, he observed, was also transmitted to the job market, where those from affluent backgrounds landed better paying jobs, owing to connections derived from having “social capital”.

Low quality

One of the problems facing African and other low-income countries is the quality of education in public universities being low owing to low funding, unlike in wealthy countries such as Sweden and Norway, where public institutions offer top-quality education.

While many governments offer free tertiary education, quality was not guaranteed, disadvantaging those who could not afford to seek alternative avenues for acquiring quality training.

“This, then, means that those who can afford it in poor countries take their children to private universities where quality is better, further denying equity to those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds,” Salmi said.

While it has been proven that learners from all backgrounds had the same capacity for succeeding in education, some “invisible minorities”, such as those with hearing disabilities, were left out of higher education. This had, in many cases, led to low self-esteem, depression and even suicide among the minorities around the world.

“We have seen some of the most disadvantaged people rising to become laureates in different fields when given a chance for education. This should call for a rethink on the kind of brains we waste when we deny them opportunities for learning,” he said.

Many governments paid lip-service to equity in education, arguing that students sat the same exams, irrespective of their backgrounds, thus ensuring equity. This, however, was not true since a lot of ‘non-financial’ barriers such as social class were always at play.

University World News is the exclusive media partner for the conference and is providing extensive coverage.