Post-conference summation: 2015 Global Access to Postsecondary (GAPS) Education Conference
Written by Paul Koshy, NCSEHE Research Fellow
The second Global Access to Postsecondary (GAPS) Education Conference took place in Kuala Lumpur in early October 2015. The purpose of GAPS is to build the case for increasing access to post-secondary education for people across all socioeconomic backgrounds on a global basis, to enhance the exchange of knowledge and practice across countries, and to improve understanding of the access challenge and the policy environment in which access is being discussed around the world.
This year’s conference was hosted by Sunway University and was organised by Dr Graeme Athereton, Chair of the GAPS Initiative, Professor Glenda Crosling, Dean of Quality at Sunway and Lee Mee Foong, Executive Secretary of the European Access Network. The Conference built on themes developed at the first conference in Montreal in 2013. Principal among these was the global representation of the access challenge, as provided by keynote addresses from Michael Crawford of the World Bank and Dr Gwang Jo-Kim of UNESCO, both of whom demonstrated the importance of education attainment to economic success, as well as its intrinsic importance to global development goals. The search for a comparative understanding of the global mission was further highlighted in a discussion of the GAPS project, Drawing the Global Access Map. The project is a multi-country (ultimately 50 country) study currently being undertaken by GAPS Chair Dr Graeme Atherton and Professor Geoff Whitty of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
The conference also provided a discussion of a regional perspective on these challenges, provided by speakers such as Professor Graeme Wilkinson, the Vice-Chancellor of Sunway University and Mary Yap Kain Ching, the Deputy Higher Education Minister of Malaysia. They indicated that Malaysian higher education has continued to expand rapidly with the system also addressing strategic issues seen elsewhere, including: globalisation, the rising use of technology, and the growing importance of the private sector both within education and related service areas such as recruitment.
Professor Wilkinson set the scene concerning global trends, stating that university graduates require a new set of skills to navigate a changing employment landscape. Nearly half of all positions in the wider economy are under threat from automation, including those attached to traditional university disciplines, while organisations are shifting from large, hierarchical firms towards smaller, flatter firms that are serviced by small, team-orientated providers. The operating environment for universities is changing rapidly, and the expectations of young graduates are rising. A subsequent session with employer groups outlined their challenges in ensuring that institutions could deliver well prepared and work-integrated graduates in this dynamic environment.
In the midst of these changes, resourcing continues to be a critical question, particularly regarding its impact on access. Student finance and income support is one of the critical keys to ensuring a ‘level playing field’ on access and countries everywhere are looking for the right balance of assigning costs to students and the taxpayer. Delegates from around the world had similar observations about how resourcing constraints disproportionately impact the access and employment outcomes for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Finally, given the discussion of the bigger issues, the conference also recognised the importance of ongoing consultation with students, both in terms of shaping access policy and on issues of diversity, course structure, and work integration. The Student and Young People Forum Workshop on Day 1 resonated throughout the Conference, along with presentations from Lesiba Bapela and Beth Button, and will no doubt continue to do so in preparations for the next GAPS conference in Sao Paulo in 2017.