Opening the doors to the disadvantaged

Graeme Atherton, Director of Access HE and the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), UK calls for better data to understand and address the global issue of inequality of access to higher education.

It is forecast that there will over a quarter of a billion students by 2030. However, the impact of global higher education expansion is tempered by inequalities at the heart of the academy. The examples of these inequalities appear repeatedly when students from Denmark to South Africa take to the streets to protest at how higher education exiles particular groups. However, we do not understand enough about this inequality. What is the evidence base regarding the social background of those who do participate in higher education? 

My recent research, to be reported in the forthcoming Going Global publication, has attempted to better understand this inequality and what the global access map looks like. It found that in 90% of countries in the world there is data to indicate that higher education participation is unequal. In rich and poor countries alike, and irrespective of whether low, no or high tuition fees are charged,  if you are from a low income background or a minority ethnic group (in most cases) you have less chance of going into higher education. However, there are big gaps in the data available. The research included a detailed survey of 50 countries drawn from every continent in the world. In only a minority of these countries is data on the background of learners collected systematically. The reasons for these gaps in data collection are partly related to resources. Good data costs money, and, in the developing world especially, what scant resources there are in higher education are used to support more places, often for learners from lower income backgrounds. But the issue of access is also about politics. Who goes to higher education is not the high profile issue in most countries as it is in the UK, the USA and Australia. The first step in dealing with any problem is acknowledging it is a problem in the first place.  Through the fieldwork undertaken as part of the study it appeared that not all countries had acknowledged this issue. It would be interesting to reflect on what would be necessary for them to make this acknowledgement. There is significant political risk for serving governments to identify what may be seen as ‘another’ form of inequality in their country. 

There is now evidence to show conclusively that inequality in access to higher education is a pervasive global problem.  However, as important as this finding is, it still needs to be supported by more and better data. And while inequality of access may be a global problem, there is a dearth of global and, national attempts to address the issue.  Moving inequality in access to higher education further up the policy agenda is essential. As higher education grows in importance in the 21st century, its ability to spread prosperity increases. But so does its potential to add to the world’s problems by reinforcing and embedding inequality.