A global perspective of equality and fairness in higher education

An online conference last week marked the ‘World Access to Higher Education Day’ and highlighted the universal problems of inequality in access and success in Higher Education. The activities of many countries and organisations dedicated to equality are to be praised for taking a stance. But recognition of a problem is only the first step. Taking positive actions for those with fewer advantages is another big step that has yet to be realised, even in the wealthiest countries including the UK. The TEFs view is that most societies are unequal to different degrees, and this is both reflected and reinforced by access to a university education.  For too long universities have acted as magnifiers of existing inequalities in the societies they serve.  However, they may also simply reflect the social environment they inhabit. There is a clear need for governments to do more to support their universities in widening access and success. A workable ‘charter’ of equality across all universities as the primary aim, and supported by resources from governments, would solidify a common purpose. Laying blame and responsibility at the doors of universities is no substitute for affirmative action. That will merely set inequality in stone for ever.

Last week saw the ‘World Access to Higher Education Day’ (WAHED) Conference 2021 come and go on Wednesday 17th November 2021.  Its theme, ‘Who will be going to University in 2030?’ should concern everyone, especially those with children at school looking to the future (all presentations available here). The evidence shows that the scale of the challenge for some is still too great and more needs to be done. Yet the event passed by with little fanfare in the mainstream media, yet it is hoped governments are taking note.  This is a pity since there is a serious problem across most countries that needs to be addressed.  Setting a global bench mark would be a good idea, but this is a long way off at present.

The online conference was organised by NEON, the UK’s National Education Opportunities Network (NCUK) and attracted speakers from sixteen countries around the globe.  Both organisations are well placed to coordinate such an event. NEON is an independent, membership-based organisation dedicated to “Widening access to Higher Education”. Largely operating across the UK, it is complemented by NCUK, who are the trading wing of a consortium of ten Northern Universities in England and promote access to a network of study centres and forty universities around the world.

The evidence base.

The annual event has been running since 2018 and was accompanied by other events in different countries.  The day also saw the discussion and update of two research reports. One from the Lumina Foundation in the USA in 2020 and looked at ‘COVID’s lessons for Global Higher Education’ to follow from  an earlier report by the same author in 2018, ‘All around the world – Higher education equity policies across the globe’. The other, from International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO IESALC).considered ‘Towards Universal Access to Higher Education: International Trends’. The latter is a detailed analysis of the trends over the past 20 years.

What are universities doing?

Its fair to say that many universities are doing their best in the context of the social structures they occupy. But there is an overwhelming sense that universities are expected to do more than they can effectively deliver.  They can come up with various policies that open doors for less advantaged students and share these with other universities. However, funding of more participation by the less well-off ‘in-house’ can only be limited. The lesson is they must do more to work with governments to achieve this. The conference highlighted examples of stark divides in many areas. This included large differences in access between rural and city dwellers in Brunei to a staggeringly low success rate for African-Americans in universities in California. The range of problems is staggering.

What are governments doing?

The conference looked across several countries and showed two things. Firstly, there was a recognition that things were very unequal in most jurisdictions. Secondly, that what is being done about it is somewhat limited, even in better-off nations. There are some examples of good practice, but doubts must also be raised about their effectiveness over time.

A report this year from the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) ‘National Equity Policies in Higher Education 2021’ summarised the approaches taken by forty-seven countries spanning Asia and Europe.  It too shows that actions by governments are patchy and “the issue or targets that relate to access or success in higher education for particular target groups is far from universal”. Then there are the follow-on effects of the pandemic whereby “The risk is that the post-pandemic period will see existing inequalities in access/success in higher education only worsen”. This is a time to accelerate efforts further.

The UK in context.

The UK is a bit like the ‘curate’s egg’, only bad in parts.  The success of UK universities in widening access fits with a global trend of so called ‘leading’ universities. The UK is by no means unique in its inequalities of university access. However, recognition there is a problem is now accepted and some advances are being made ahead of some other countries. A report from NEON for the Sutton Trust a year ago, ‘Room-at-the-Top:  Access and success at leading universities around the world’, showed that the most prestigious universities have initiatives to promote and widen access. However, one conclusion was that “countries that have national access and success strategies show that leading universities benefit from them”.  This may seem self-evident, but a dovetailing of university and government strategies would always be more effective.  The idea of setting quotas may be a step too far at this point, however effective it might be. That said, it appears in the UK there is a general policy that expects universities to bear the burden and responsibility.  This is a poor strategy that shifts blame and is used as an excuse to maintain the status quo. It was also noted that an overall difference between many countries and England was that they had a wider “focus on access and success” and “Including a focus on success in national programmes may be particularly valuable to explore”.  Of course, access is no guarantee of success and access is no good without success.

More effective action would allow universities to exert their authority by setting a ‘benchmark’ for equality instead of simply reflecting, or even magnifying, existing social inequality. This should be the universal aim of all universities around the world and an effective ‘charter’ of equality across all universities as the primary aim would solidify a common purpose.

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