Charting Equity in Higher Education: Drawing the Global Access Map
Written by Graeme Atherton, Constantino Dumangane and Geoff Whitty
The Growing Importance of Higher Education
According to current figures, there will be almost half a billion higher education (HE) students around the world by 2030, up from about 200 million today. There is every reason to expect this number to continue rising over the course of the 21st century.
The drivers behind the growing demand for HE among students, and for graduates among employers, are many – the principal among them being the need for higher-level skills as our labour markets and jobs change; the growth of the middle class internationally; and the role of HE study as a gateway to professional careers.
The benefits of HE study to individuals and society are widely recognised. Continued study – particularly the completion of an undergraduate degree – is associated with better employment prospects and productivity, improved health and wellbeing, and greater civic engagement. The belief that those with the most education will be best equipped to thrive in today’s global economy – with all its risk, change and uncertainty – has been highlighted in several reports. It is further illustrated by one of UNESCO’s 2015 lifelong learning goals: that by 2030, we should ensure that all women and men have equal access to high quality, affordable technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.
Why should we monitor access to HE?
Despite the importance of HE and the opportunities it presents, we know that some groups find it much easier than others to access and succeed in it, and that there are some shared patterns across countries in this regard.
To move towards equity, we need a fuller understanding of which groups are accessing HE. At the moment this knowledge is partial and patchy, reflecting the relative neglect of HE access data collection, and perhaps the complexity of monitoring access to HE.
If robust data on participation in HE are not available, it is difficult to monitor participation and to begin tackling inequities. So there is a social justice case for investigating how we might gather comparable data on who is – and who is not – accessing HE around the world.
Developing better methods of collecting data on HE access, and better systems for comparing that data, will mean confronting many ethical and technical challenges – especially if we hope to conduct cross country analyses that reach across HE systems operating in very different contexts and at very different stages of development. The project that we report on here contributes to developing what we hope will be a systematic and context-sensitive approach to addressing inequalities of access nationally, regionally and internationally.
Crucially, this is done with an eye to eventually having insight across the entire student ‘life cycle’ – access, retention, progression, success and subsequent destinations. So we will also need to know more about the types of HE provision that students are accessing, the quality of the qualifications they receive, and meaningful definitions of those qualifications (e.g. what are the new skills and knowledge of those obtaining them?).
Evidence suggests that there are considerable differences in the competency levels of people with similar tertiary-level qualifications. Indeed, as access to HE has expanded outcomes from HE study have become more varied. This makes any analysis of equity in HE access based purely on acceptance on a course or even the attainment of a degree – including the analysis presented here – an important first step, but just that, a first step. It is vital to recognise that many further steps will need to be taken before we can build a truly useful picture of access as a whole.
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