Ex­pand­ing the world of wi­den­ing ac­cess

Anna McKie looks at how fair it is to com­pare coun­tries on eq­uity of ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Ef­forts to widen par­tic­i­pa­tion in higher ed­u­ca­tion vary greatly in dif­fer­ent parts of the world: an eth­nic mi­nor­ity in one coun­try could be a ma­jor­ity group in an­other, for ex­am­ple, while even col­lect­ing na­tional-level data on these sorts of char­ac­ter­is­tics can be nigh on im­pos­si­ble in parts of the de­vel­op­ing world.

But is there value in shar­ing global best prac­tice in an area that is so rooted in lo­cal cir­cum­stances? And is it even pos­si­ble to com­pare coun­tries’ per­for­mance on eq­uity of ac­cess to de­gree cour­ses?

A new anal­y­sis of wi­den­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion poli­cies in 71 coun­tries across six con­ti­nents makes the case that both are pos­si­ble – and worth­while. The re­view, au­thored by ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion ex­pert Jamil Salmi, finds that while most of the na­tions con­sid­ered had made eq­uity a pol­icy pri­or­ity, too many paid only “lip ser­vice” to the is­sue, fail­ing to back up this com­mit­ment with mean­ing­ful in­ter­ven­tions.

To find out which coun­tries are ad­dress­ing ac­cess chal­lenges most ef­fec­tively, the re­port rates coun­tries in one of four cat­e­gories. Of the 71 sys­tems con­sid­ered, only six – Eng­land, Scot­land, Ire­land, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Cuba – are la­belled “ad­vanced”, mean­ing that they have for­mu­lated and im­ple­mented a com­pre­hen­sive eq­uity strat­egy.

A larger group of 23 coun­tries – in­clud­ing the US, Spain, Wales, France, Canada and Is­rael – fall into the “es­tab­lished” cat­e­gory, which means that they have for­mu­lated an ac­cess strat­egy and are putting in place poli­cies to im­ple­ment it. The largest group – made up of 33 coun­tries in­clud­ing Ar­gentina, Ja­pan, Mo­rocco, Kenya, In­done­sia and Rus­sia – is la­belled “de­vel­op­ing”, mean­ing that these na­tions have put in place the foun­da­tions for an eq­uity strat­egy but have not de­fined poli­cies or put much in­vest­ment in the area. Only nine coun­tries – in­clud­ing Egypt, Laos, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sierra Leone – are deemed “emerg­ing”, mean­ing that the coun­try has for­mu­lated broad goals but has done lit­tle in the way of con­crete in­ter­ven­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Salmi, these lat­ter coun­tries are in essence frag­ile states – ones re­cov­er­ing from

con­flict, po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity or nat­u­ral dis­as­ters – and, de­spite hav­ing started think­ing about im­prov­ing ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion, they have yet to trans­late this into re­sources.

Dr Salmi noted that the ad­vanced group is largely made up of wealthy Com­mon­wealth coun­tries that have ma­ture and de­vel­oped higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems. As a re­sult they can give more at­ten­tion – and fund­ing – to the ob­sta­cles faced by stu­dents from un­der-rep­re­sented groups. The out­lier in this group is Cuba, the only so­cial­ist coun­try that has con­sis­tently put a great em­pha­sis on ac­cess since the 1959 revo­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing to Dr Salmi.

Con­sis­tency in their strate­gies, goals and tar­gets for wi­den­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion is what they all have in com­mon, said Dr Salmi. “There are other coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly in Latin Amer­ica, where the fre­quent changes in gov­ern­ment and tech­ni­cal teams have re­sulted in a lack of con­ti­nu­ity, which makes en­act­ing change very dif­fi­cult,” he told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

Some richer coun­tries such as the US and Canada, which have de­vel­oped and well-re­spected higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems, failed to get top marks. Dr Salmi at­trib­uted this to their fed­eral po­lit­i­cal sys­tems, which mean that they have fewer com­pre­hen­sive na­tional poli­cies. That in turn means that lev­els of ac­cess and suc­cess vary across the coun­try. Aus­tralia, which is rated ad­vanced but has a fed­eral sys­tem, proves to be an ex­cep­tion to the rule by align­ing its poli­cies through its na­tional ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment.

The re­port also con­sid­ers the types of groups that are tar­geted by eq­uity poli­cies: four out of five coun­tries pri­ori­tise the needs of low­in­come and dis­abled stu­dents. Sixty per cent tar­get gen­der groups (typ­i­cally women) with their poli­cies, while eth­nic mi­nori­ties are a pri­or­ity for a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion.

Other groups tar­geted in­clude, for ex­am­ple, de­mo­bilised guer­rilla fighters in Colom­bia, fam­i­lies with more than three chil­dren in Ge­or­gia and South Korea, and, in a num­ber of cases, care leavers.

Dr Salmi con­sid­ered how these groups are tar­geted. Only one in three coun­tries has set spe­cific ac­cess tar­gets for named groups, but a wide va­ri­ety of tech­niques are de­ployed to try to im­prove ac­cess. Many use fi­nan­cial mea­sures, such as tu­ition fee ex­emp­tions, schol­ar­ships and stu­dent loans. A po­ten­tial draw­back is that these are of­ten di­rected only at stu­dents in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties and, in some sec­tors, pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions play a key role in the sec­tor.

Some sys­tems give uni­ver­si­ties di­rect in­cen­tives by mak­ing some of their fund­ing de­pen­dent on pro­gres­sion to­wards eq­uity goals: in South Africa, for ex­am­ple, uni­ver­si­ties with a higher pro­por­tion of black stu­dents get ad­di­tional re­sources.

Non-mon­e­tary sup­port can be pro­vided too – most fre­quently in the use of con­tex­tu­alised ad­mis­sions, in which en­try re­quire­ments are low­ered for stu­dents from dis­ad­van­taged groups, but also through out­reach and re­ten­tion ini­tia­tives, or the cre­ation of

in­sti­tu­tions specif­i­cally de­signed to serve re­mote ar­eas or mi­nor­ity groups.

How, then, can these data be used? With uni­ver­si­ties in­creas­ingly be­ing com­pared with each other in in­ter­na­tional rank­ings, there is a temp­ta­tion to call for eq­uity mea­sures to be in­cluded in such ta­bles’ method­olo­gies. Here, the chal­lenge is col­lect­ing com­pa­ra­ble data.

Pauline Rose, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, said that it could be dan­ger­ous to say that one coun­try has the most eq­ui­table ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion and an­other has the least with­out un­der­stand­ing why that is the case. “You have to recog­nise that it is con­text-spe­cific, and there is no blue­print. The specifics of a coun­try’s labour mar­ket that grad­u­ates will be mov­ing into need to be thought about, for ex­am­ple,” she said.

How­ever, Pro­fes­sor Rose ar­gued that uni­ver­si­ties and pol­i­cy­mak­ers could look to other coun­tries in search of best prac­tice in wi­den­ing ac­cess. There are gen­eral prin­ci­ples that ap­ply across dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, such as get­ting the foun­da­tions of a sys­tem right and tack­ling in­equal­i­ties early on, she said,

adding that “a coun­try look­ing to im­prove can take that prin­ci­ple and adapt it”.

Graeme Ather­ton, di­rec­tor of the UK’s Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Op­por­tu­ni­ties Net­work, sup­ported the launch of the re­port for the firstever World Ac­cess to Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Day, and said that com­par­ing coun­tries around the world is im­por­tant not only for shar­ing best prac­tice but also to help with pol­icy ad­vo­cacy.

“While the con­text may dif­fer, the fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges are still the same,” he said. “For ex­am­ple, dur­ing World Ac­cess to Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Day, we heard from Brazil about work­ing with ex-of­fend­ers and get­ting them into univer­sity – that’s some­thing that’s also go­ing on in the UK.”

Dr Ather­ton said that col­lect­ing more world­wide data and shar­ing it was in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant.

“Lots of aca­demics work in­ter­na­tion­ally, so why not do it in this area? We know that work­ing to­gether across dif­fer­ent coun­tries is hugely ben­e­fi­cial in other aspects of higher ed­u­ca­tion, so log­i­cally it makes sense to do it when it comes to wi­den­ing ac­cess,” he said.

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