Equity, inclusion and the transformation of higher education

Access, quality and equity represent the fundamental policy pillars that every higher education system should strive for. Recognising their interconnected nature, these three policy domains should be regarded as an integrated whole, as their effectiveness is contingent upon each other.

In the realms of access and quality, various metrics – including gross enrolment ratios (GERs), learning outcomes, employment rates and more – have already been established to gauge their progress. Furthermore, these metrics can be stratified based on students’ diverse backgrounds to capture the equity aspects within these contexts.

With higher education systems expanding globally, GERs have experienced a significant surge in most systems, enhancing learners’ access to higher education. Simultaneously, considerable endeavours have been directed toward improving the quality of higher education through both external and internal quality assurance mechanisms.

The current situation requires increased attention to equity, mainly due to various disruptive factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts, political unrest, climate change and natural disasters, which have amplified the importance of equity and inclusion – a cornerstone of several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Strategies to include disadvantaged students

Fostering equity and inclusion involves ensuring fair representation of students from diverse backgrounds in higher education, covering a spectrum of social, economic, ethnic, gender, physical and mental characteristics.

As a result, it is imperative for each country to establish tailored frameworks for identifying and categorising disadvantaged students within their respective societies.

Among the various groups of disadvantaged students, learners facing physical and mental disabilities are particularly prominent across countries. Securing their access to higher education is crucial to promoting equity and inclusion. This goal requires well-defined policies, streamlined strategies, effective incentives and appropriate support services and resource allocation.

Family income is another factor in identifying disadvantaged students, as individuals from low-income households often face obstacles in pursuing higher education. This challenge is particularly amplified in countries with high tuition fees and limited financial support, including publicly funded scholarships and government-backed student loan programmes.

In countries with diverse ethnicities, ensuring the access of ethnic minority students to higher education is paramount. Similarly, in countries with varying religious affiliations, equitable access to higher education opportunities should be extended to students from religious minority groups.

Other disadvantaged student groups might include non-local students, migrant students, international students, refugees, displaced persons and individuals living in a refugee-like situation.

Comprehensive national mappings of these diverse student groups, supported by solid databases, are critical in identifying disadvantaged populations, monitoring their inclusion status, conducting gap analyses and implementing effective solutions.

Student recruitment

The journey toward equity and inclusion should commence with the recruitment of college students, if not earlier, given the significant impact of the school system’s structure on the composition of college student populations.

For instance, the diversification of high school learning programmes can be justified by insights from educational psychology, recognising that students have varying attitudes and learning needs.

However, educational sociology research reveals that students from low-income families are predominantly enrolled in vocational programmes. In contrast, students from middle- and higher-income families constitute the majority in academic pathways leading to prestigious universities.

Regarding student recruitment, there are primarily two approaches: one is merit-based, involving a broader range of examinations and assessments, which may include high-stakes national college entrance examinations and other standardised tests. The second approach is quota-based, where a designated percentage of university places is reserved for disadvantaged students alongside regular selection procedures.

Sustaining a quota-based admissions system is crucial, especially when resources are limited for supporting disadvantaged student groups during their years prior to higher education. This highlights the need for affirmative action in many countries to ensure equitable access to higher education.

As educational systems become increasingly equitable for students from various backgrounds, the phasing out of the quota-based admissions system can occur gradually. This transition allows a merit-based admissions system to take precedence while ensuring the maintenance of equity and inclusion in higher education.

In most countries, higher education institutions often have a hierarchical structure. Top institutions must prioritise including students from diverse backgrounds, particularly those facing disadvantages, as part of their social responsibilities. This requires policies to facilitate the recruitment of students from humble backgrounds, either through merit-based or quota-based admissions processes.

Access to different disciplines and areas of study

Ensuring equal access to higher education goes beyond just counting the total number of students from diverse backgrounds. It involves actively promoting the participation of a diverse student body in a wide range of academic disciplines and fields of study.

Performing equity and inclusion assessments is vital to guarantee that all students have the same opportunities to access the most prestigious and innovative educational programmes.

It can be argued that male students usually dominate sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) study programmes, while social and human sciences generally attract more female students. Additionally, student representation in both STEM and social and human sciences programmes varies among different demographic groups based on additional criteria.

In cases where merit-based mechanisms fail to uplift the representation of disadvantaged students in highly sought-after study programmes, targeted affirmative actions must be implemented to ensure their participation. Creating supportive ecosystems at the system, institutional and faculty levels is critical to fostering inclusion and enhancing access to relevant study programmes for disadvantaged students.

An alternative strategy is identifying the most financially rewarding study programmes based on their initial employment rates and post-graduation salary levels. Undertaking comprehensive evaluations of student demographics based on diverse backgrounds within these programmes can enhance the analysis of equity and inclusion.

With higher education institutions aligning their study programmes with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring equal access to these programmes becomes paramount. This facilitates the acquisition of essential sustainability-related skills and competencies by students, particularly females and other disadvantaged individuals, preparing them to contribute effectively towards achieving all the SDG targets.

Equity and inclusion assessments should cover all disciplines and fields of study to prevent certain student groups from dominating high-demand programmes. This is particularly crucial for programmes that leverage advanced technologies and offer promising employment prospects and higher salaries while aligning with the SDGs.

Student support systems

With the expansion of higher education systems, governments face mounting costs and reduced financial capacity to sustain this growth. Consequently, many countries are embracing the concept of cost-sharing in higher education.

Nevertheless, higher tuition fees challenge equity and inclusion, potentially restricting the participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

UNESCO recognises higher education as a public good and an integral part of an individual’s right to education. To ease the financial strain on students, increased government investment should be complemented by the establishment of comprehensive student financial support systems, including various allowances for living and tuition expenses and potential student loan schemes.

In addition to financial support, higher education institutions need robust student affairs management systems to provide a wide range of assistance to students facing diverse challenges, including academic, social, physical, mental and logistical support.

It is vital to integrate academic support and mental health services to foster the comprehensive development of university students, particularly those encountering challenging circumstances. Higher education institutions must establish inclusive campuses, classrooms and laboratories to address all students’ academic needs and their mental well-being.

Faculty members should be prepared to embrace inclusive pedagogies to accommodate the diverse needs of students in their classes. Actions such as reducing class sizes, providing personalised tutoring and promoting interactions between teachers and students as well as among students, especially with the support of technology, can promote equity and inclusion in the learning and teaching processes, ensuring that no student is left behind.

Student support services aim to assist students in overcoming financial, academic, social and mental challenges, fostering a positive campus environment that enables them to reach their full potential. Achieving this goal necessitates the professional growth of student affairs management staff and equipping faculty members with the necessary skills to address both academic and non-academic aspects proficiently.

Employment destinations

Higher education acts as a pivotal avenue for students’ upward social mobility. Comprehensive equity and inclusion assessments should cover not only student recruitment, their learning experiences and campus life but also their employment prospects.

Numerous factors influence students’ post-graduation employment, including their institutional choices, personal backgrounds and networks. Essential empirical research is necessary to identify these factors and monitor the career paths of diverse student groups. This research will inform targeted initiatives to remove barriers that impede disadvantaged students from entering mainstream professions.

While higher education serves broader purposes beyond employment, it should prioritise improving its study programmes to align with the swiftly evolving jobs market. This involves actively forging robust relationships with stakeholders, including professional bodies, employers and other partners, to enhance the employability of their graduates.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds should receive enhanced support through counselling services, customised recruitment sessions, on and off-campus job fairs, online job portals and strengthened connections with local job markets.

Effective alumni relationship management should involve continuous tracking of their employment statuses, with a specific emphasis on equity and inclusion. This strategy will subsequently inform the development and implementation of institutional measures for equity and inclusion, drawing from the insights gained.

Setting the new agenda

As access and quality in higher education systems worldwide continue to improve, the important policy objective of equity and inclusion has become a central focus. This calls for fresh perspectives and proactive measures to shape the future transformation of higher education.

The equity and inclusion challenges ingrained in the school system often extend into higher education, with students’ secondary school backgrounds strongly influencing their admissions outcomes. However, balancing merit-based and quota-based mechanisms in the recruitment of students is essential to guarantee more significant equity and inclusion.

While the starting point is vital, the processes and outcomes hold equal, if not more, significance for equity and inclusion assessments. Consistently applying an equity and inclusion perspective to the teaching and learning processes and the career paths of all students is imperative.

Moving forward, our objective is to ensure that the equity and inclusion perspective plays a more prominent role in discussions and efforts to achieve the triple policy objectives of higher education.

Libing Wang is chief of section for educational innovation and skills development at the UNESCO Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. This is an edited version of a keynote speech delivered online at the Sophia University-UNU IAS-ProSPER.Net Forum on “Exploring the New Direction of Equity and Inclusion towards Transforming Education” on 21 October 2023.