Inequalities in higher education: We are moving too slowly

Last month’s United Nations report on Transforming Education, which highlighted the lack of progress towards SDG 4, the Sustainable Development Goal associated with access to education, should come as no surprise where the access to tertiary education component of this goal is concerned.

We undertook research with over 300 organisations across the world in 2021 which suggested that, in their view, we were, if anything, going backwards in terms of access to tertiary education for all students and especially for those from low-income and other disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the view of over 90% of respondents surveyed for The Equity Crisis: Higher education access and success to 2030 report, participation in higher education by equity target groups and completion rates would go down and the chances of getting a graduate job for these students would reduce by 2025.

Global higher education must take some responsibility

The lack of engagement with universities by policy-makers where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are concerned is a frustration for many and no doubt contributes to the lack of progress with the development goals, but with SDG 4.3, ie, “By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university”, the higher education sector must also share some responsibility.

Despite the increasing amount of research and data pointing to the inequalities in who accesses and succeeds in universities across the world – inequalities which encompass both richer and poorer nations – this issue remains low on the global higher education agenda.

It is not an obvious priority for many existing international university networks and attempts to fill the gap in global collaboration focused explicitly on equitable access and success have been challenging.

Since 2018 we have been co-ordinating World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED), the international day of action focused on equity in higher education access and success which has reached over 1,000 organisations.

While WAHED has raised awareness of inequalities in access and success and connected universities, NGOs and policy-makers from across the world, gaining traction on equity is difficult and an annual day is not enough.

There needs to be concerted work that is honest about the inequalities that exist in higher education participation across the world, what universities can and can’t do to address them, and work that shows how addressing these inequalities is crucial to economic and social development.

Equity crisis summit

This need for concerted, comprehensive work is why we launched the World Access to Higher Education Network (WAHEN) in 2022 and last month brought together key players from across the world for the “Addressing the Global Equity Crisis” summit at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom to map out what its future agenda could look like.

Bringing together leading universities, foundations, international bodies and researchers was a response to the lack of progress in achieving equitable access and success in tertiary education that The Equity Crisis: Higher education access and success to 2030 report and the UN themselves have pointed to.

The first outcome from this summit was the recognition of the scale of the challenge here and the weight of the responsibilities that lie upon those working in higher education – both universities and other stakeholders – in trying to meet it.

The economic and racial inequalities that permeate the culture of higher education are deeply engrained in both institutions and systems. They are also too slow in being acknowledged by many and even slower in being addressed.

As Sebastian Berger argued at Oxford and writes in today’s University World News, any plans to widen access and success need to be serious about the role of wealth inequality in depriving young people of their right to education and that means closing the education financing gap internationally to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education).

Innovative work

Nevertheless, as Jamil Salmi’s article, also in today’s University World News, based on the research he shared at the summit, shows, there is innovative work being done across the world focused on equitable access and success.

WAHEN’s priorities must be to identify, share, scale and support such work by organisations and policy-makers while using data as a basis for an ambitious programme of advocacy that aims to reset how inequalities in higher education are seen in terms of their importance.

These priorities can only be achieved via a network that embeds diversity in it, both in terms of global representation, gender and ethnicity of its key players and, as at last month’s summit, including universities and wider stakeholders from the higher education sector.

These stakeholders must include students and those who work with them on a day-to-day basis. Achieving changes in policy only leads to differences in outcome when those who implement these policies are engaged. One of the strongest lessons for WAHEN emerging from last month’s summit was that it must connect those from across the university in taking this movement forward.

A more impactful response

The next steps for WAHEN in building a global movement that can extend access to tertiary education is to build on the foundations that exist.

This means a more impactful WAHED in 2023 that will engage more universities and international stakeholders in the network, and the development of a new global platform that brings together the evidence on good practice and policy innovation in one place, along with growing advocacy through partnerships with key networks including the Asia-Europe Foundation, the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Magna Charta Observatory.

WAHEN will also look to add to the knowledge base itself regarding who enters and succeeds in higher education from low-income and other marginalised backgrounds, what policies exist and which work, as well as initiating new global research collaborations.

The unequal distribution of opportunities to enter higher or tertiary education among different groups is at the centre of how inequalities are formed and reproduced in the 21st century. Failure to try to address these inequities in the face of a myriad of competing priorities cannot be allowed to happen.

Professor Graeme Atherton, is director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), University of West London; head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up, and convenor of the World Access to Higher Education Day.