Equity in access and success: How love can get us there

If higher education is to achieve equity in both access and success, then it needs to relearn some of the “goodness” that carried it through the COVID-19 pandemic and think about how “we can lead with love”, international participants to World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) 2022 were told.

Dania Matos, vice-chancellor for equity and inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States, was speaking on 17 November as a new report, The Equity Crisis: Higher education access and success to 2030, was released.

Written by Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), for the Northern Consortium of UK Universities, the report warns that targets for equitable access to higher education by 2030 set by UNESCO are unlikely to be met and even fewer students from lower socio-economic backgrounds across the world are likely to enter and succeed by 2025.

The report draws on analysis of data on higher education participation across the world and a global survey of responses from 80 organisations in over 50 countries and seven online discussion sessions delivered in partnership with a range of international organisations.

“Around 90% of respondents thought that, between now and 2025, for equity groups participation would decrease, attainment fall, student dropout increase and progression to graduate employment decrease. Nearly a quarter of respondents feared that this fall in participation would be over 20%,” the report finds.

Speaking to global higher education leaders and academics driving the widening participation agenda and attending the first of two international online events to mark the fifth World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED), Matos said: “We keep talking about institutions as if they exist in this vast void, but they are comprised of people.”

In the context of US higher education, however, that means being funded on the basis of “access for some and not access for all” and with barriers to who can attend and whose knowledge is valued, even at Berkeley “which has been around for centuries”, she said.

As a black Latino from Puerto Rico, “raised by a single mom who sacrificed everything” for her daughter’s education, Matos said she was part of the 1% that went to an Ivy League institution and rose to a senior position of leadership.

“Human beings created this racial hierarchy and these exclusions and it is for human beings to undo it,” she said, as she called for more “authentic leaders” to lead important conversations about equity gaps.

Matos said many positive things happened in terms of transformation during the pandemic and many thought that things such as greed were behind us, but too many are thinking in terms of “going back to business as usual” and “forgetting the goodness and the things we created”.

That included “thinking about how we can lead with love” – a word, she admitted, not often used in higher education and “a word not found in any strategic plan, but it will be in mine”.

Care as a university value

David Lock, secretary general of the Magna Charta Observatory, took up the theme when he stressed that higher education is “a human right and should be available to all as a lifelong activity”.

Turning to the word ‘love’, he said when he set up the British University in Dubai, one of the first tasks he set was determining the values of the university as an ‘ice-breaker’ with his staff.

“One of those values was care. Some people thought it was a kind of soft, soppy statement, but it isn’t. If you care about your students and do everything you can to enable them to be successful, if you care about your staff and do everything you can to help them serve their students, that word ‘care’ creates an ambience around the university which becomes very attractive.

“In a Christian context, we call that love. In a university context in an Islamic country, we called it caring, but it is the same thing and it creates that sense of belonging.”

Matos told the WAHED 2022 event that those engaged with equity and access often talk about first-generation students, “but we don’t talk about first-generation equity practitioners and that is what many of us are and we really need to think about how we develop those first-generation educational practitioners”.

That includes “dismantling things that don’t serve anyone” and redirecting resources, she suggested.

“We need to build sustainable structures to advance and transform higher education and take a holistic approach to eliminating barriers to increase access to opportunities and advancement… and create conditions for all students to thrive.”

A change in language

Matos said the language also needed to change, and higher education should stop using terms like ‘traditional’, which meant keeping the status quo.

Change happens all the time, but transformation really causes people to critically examine “existing beliefs and practices and norms and [to] recognise how privilege operates and how it contributes to inequality and oppression”.

Earlier, the online event heard from Professor Dr Malcolm Butler, vice-president and director of global engagement at the University of Sheffield in the UK and chair of the Northern Consortium, which published the report on the equity crisis in higher education access and success.

Butler described the report as “a call for action” and said: “Understanding a problem is the key to solving it.” He warned that 2030 was closer than many think when considering the challenges of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

He said the pandemic compounded existing inequalities and called on the global higher education community to set targets to ensure accountability and work together to convince world leaders and investors of the importance of achieving greater access to higher education.

Internationalisation and equity

Asked by Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for tertiary education and senior education specialist at the World Bank, who chaired the discussion, to say more about the connection between internationalisation and equity, particularly for marginalised students who don’t take part in international activities, Butler agreed it was central to higher education to “create global citizens who can contribute to the world”.

Butler argued that universities did this by having a range of staff with international experience and by attracting a wide range of students from around the world to give exposure to different perspectives and backgrounds.

While his university (the University of Sheffield) had a range of scholarships to help increase equitable access and “generous alumni who give donations often focused on helping under-represented groups”, he admitted that “study abroad is a real challenge for us in the UK”.

“We have UK students from disadvantaged backgrounds who manage to get to university, but can they then have that full-blown experience?

“We think a year abroad, or even a two-week summer school, can be life-changing in terms of gaining a global perspective and we try to fund some of that by ourselves or through the Turing scheme, but it is also about giving people the confidence to take that first step which can open their eyes and change their lives.”

View from Bulgaria

Giving a different perspective from south-eastern Europe, Dr Ivana Radonova, a state expert with the Higher Education Directorate of the Ministry of Education and Science in Bulgaria and co-chair of the Bologna Implementation Coordination Group, told the discussion: “It is not just a question of access, but also about ensuring a friendly environment so that people from vulnerable groups and not just traditional students can feel at home in a university.”

She said Bulgaria had moved away from simply handing out grants to training academic staff and bringing in outside experts to ensure minority students receive the extra support they need.

With an ageing population and decline in the number of young people, Bulgaria was also introducing new mechanisms to recognise prior learning and experience and enable older members of society to also benefit from higher education, often by allowing them to enter in year two or study for micro-credentials.

Can UNESCO’s goal be achieved?

Atherton outlined the main findings in his report in last week’s edition of University World News when he questioned whether UNESCO’s global goal 4.3 – eliminating inequalities in access to tertiary education – can be achieved by 2030.

He told the WAHED online event that after the pandemic it was clear that the new jobs being created would be in more highly skilled areas and that will leave a lot of displaced low-wage workers who require different skills.

He said while the Global South was focusing on expanding primary and secondary education, if it doesn’t also build capacity in higher education, it is “like building a pyramid without a roof on” and that too few people will reach their full potential or be able to take on leadership roles.

He was also alarmed about the high number of children who had dropped out of schooling during the pandemic and won’t get the grades needed to enter higher education.

“There is a fall in applications to higher education in many areas and countries; not just in applications but also in the number who are succeeding and going on to graduate level jobs who come from lower social economic groups.”

Invest in equity

He urged higher education leaders from around the world to invest 5% of their resources to increase access. “We need a commitment to spend 5% on equity and set targets to drive change,” he said.

“The pandemic has presented higher education with real challenges and has demonstrated there is a real danger that recent progress in equitable access and success in higher education could spiral backwards.

“It is now more important than ever that organisations work together across borders, connecting universities, organisations and policy-makers to avoid any losses to the gains that have been made over recent years,” Atherton told University World News.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at