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Increasing opportunity in higher education is a policy in many countries — up to a point

Countries around the world have made fairness and wider access to higher education a priority. And, while there have been some gains, many countries still fail to define concrete targets to enroll and support at-risk students in vulnerable conditions, mobilize sufficient resources for underrepresented groups or adequately help students complete their degrees.

Those are among the findings at the first World Access to Higher Education Day organized by the National Education Opportunities Network in the UK. WAHED, recognized for the first time this year on Nov. 28, is designed to help address inequalities in access and success in higher education around the world.

The meeting featured new research supported by Lumina Foundation that examines policies on equitable access and success in higher education in over 70 countries and eight international organizations, including the World Bank, the European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Networks (ASEAN). The research included a global report as well as the Global Equity Policy Map — a database of the relevant policies in each of the countries.

The report shows the unevenness in policymakers’ commitments to address inequalities in access to higher education.

Among the countries surveyed, Australia, Cuba, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and Scotland are standouts. These countries are more likely to have a comprehensive equity policy and, in many cases, a dedicated national office to implement it. The report also points to positive developments such as the elimination of tuition for the poorest students in countries such as Chile, the Philippines, and South Africa, and the growing availability of grants for indigenous students in Australia, Brazil, and Romania.

Besides a few fragile countries, increasing opportunity is a priority in the higher education agendas of governments around the world, usually with a focus on low-income students and students with disabilities. However, most of these policy statements are general, lacking clearly identified strategies. When strategies do exist, they are primarily monetary. Typically, they focus on improving access — by eliminating fees and offering scholarships and grants. Few strategies focus on boosting success — that is, program completion among the identified student groups. In addition, most countries (68 percent) lack explicit targets to improve access and success of their identified student populations.

The report identified two promising trends. First, more countries are realizing they must combine both financial and non-monetary help to remove barriers. Countries are moving away from a single solution (e.g., a scholarship) to more inclusive approaches. Second, some countries have introduced funding formulas and institutional grants to encourage schools to improve access and success for underserved populations.

“Including equity-related criteria in the quality assurance process is another important way of encouraging higher education institutions to take the access and success of underrepresented groups seriously,” the report said.

This study demonstrates that while governments recognize the importance of increasing higher education opportunity for all, they are not addressing the issue with explicit practices and targets.

This report is an important first step in understanding how countries across the globe are addressing equity in higher education. However, as report author Jamil Salmi said, this report “barely scraped the surface of the issues and challenges involved in seeking to improve opportunities for access and success at the postsecondary level.” He hopes that further studies will examine which interventions are most successful and under what conditions.

Tracy Chen

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