New research highlights global inequalities in access to higher education

Report issues call to action in form of Global Equity Data Charter to improve social mobility in higher education

Pearson, the world’s learning company, today issues a report, Charting Equity in Higher Education: Drawing the Global Access Map, in partnership with the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, at the University of Newcastle, Australia. The piece, which features new research on the availability of data on higher education access, includes a Global Equity Data Charter: a list of concrete actions to help catalyse improved data collection, and thereby increased equity in higher education access, participation, and completion.

According to current figures, there will be almost half a billion higher education (HE) students globally by 2030, up from about 200 million today. The drivers behind the growing demand for HE are many – including the need for higher-level skills as labour markets and jobs change; the growth of the middle class internationally; and the role of HE study as a gateway to professional careers. What these projections fail to tell us, however, is exactly who is -- and who is not -- accessing higher education.

Through a survey of current data collection practices in 50 countries, a review of existing data sources, and deep dive case studies in six countries (Australia, India, Columbia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States), report authors Graeme Atherton (London Higher), Constantino Dumangane (University of Cardiff), and Geoff Whitty (University of Newcastle, Australia), drew five key messages:

  1. Available data suggest that inequalities in access to HE are pervasive, spanning countries around the world, regardless of size or wealth.
  2. The data have important limitations, with little data being collected beyond gender and SES. Further, different countries and regions have their own dominant concerns as regards equality, grounded in social, economic and political history.
  3. Comparisons across countries are important but difficult, because of the various ways social indicators are defined and measured.
  4. Access means more than entry and participation; it also means completion of a high quality programme.
  5. Political will and resourcing shape data collection.

Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, said: "Truly understanding access in higher education is much more than simply knowing the overall percentage of a population participating,” “With this report, the authors have begun to lift the curtain on what we really know about who is participating in HE, particularly with regard to underrepresented populations. The report, and the Global Equity Data Charter, provide a critical call to action and roadmap for HE institutions, as well as governments and international organizations."

The authors had hoped to develop a Global Equity Index comparing HE access across eleven different social indicators. Their research revealed, however, that robust data on participation in HE around the world is not widely available. The resulting effect is that policymakers and HE leaders lack the data required to measure the impact of any policies designed to improve access in a targeted way. The evidence that is available, however, suggests that the traditional ways of increasing overall participation in HE may not be the best ways to address the issue of equity of access.

Report author, Graeme Atherton, commented: "Our preliminary analysis of the data suggest that broad changes to the macro policy environment may not be enough to address inequalities in HE access. Although expanding our HE systems is likely to increase the numbers of learners from different groups who can participate, it will not necessarily increase the relative chances of underrepresented groups participating. Instead, inequality in HE access is a problem that appears to need specialist attention, and a better understanding of who is and is not participating is the first step towards this."

In place of an index, the authors have issued a call of action in the form of a Global Equity Data Charter - a series of actions to be undertaken by institutions, nations, and international organizations to help higher education institutions and governments understand and address inequalities in access to HE.

Report author, Geoff Whitty, former director of the IOE, Global Innovation Chair for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle, Australia, said, "We hope the Global Data Equity Charter will help move equity further up the global higher education agenda and encourage countries to fill in some of the gaps in what we know about access on a global scale."

Today’s release of Charting Equity in Higher Education... is only the first component of this work. Individual briefs on higher education data collection practices in the six case study countries will be released throughout 2016 and 2017.


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About Open Ideas at Pearson

This paper is published as part of the Open Ideas at Pearson series. The series features some of the best minds in education - from teachers and technologists, to researchers and big thinkers - to bring their ideas and insights to a wider audience.

About the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) at the University of Newcastle, Australia

CEEHE produces research that sets the standard for promoting equity in higher education locally, nationally and globally. Our approach is interdisciplinary, international and collaborative. We see participation in high quality higher education as one of the most powerful ways for countries to create equal, cohesive societies with stable economies and strong democratic participation.