Higher education’s equity crisis threatens the whole sector

Next week will mark the fifth World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED). It may also be the last. Over the past five years, with little resources, the National Education Opportunities Network – the organisation supporting equitable access and success in higher education in the United Kingdom – has convened WAHED.

Since 2018, over 1,000 organisations have participated in our online events or led activities of their own to raise awareness of inequalities in higher education access and success.

However, as much as there is genuine concern across the world regarding the extent to which these inequalities are endemic to higher education systems, resources and commitment to address these problems are in shorter supply. Our efforts to put WAHED on a more sustainable footing have thus far proved unsuccessful as universities have found it difficult as yet to commit to joining our new World Access to Higher Education Network.

A wider set of challenges

The difficulties we have faced in trying to rally support for international dialogue and action are just one part of a wider set of challenges facing equity in higher education.

This year’s WAHED marks the launch of a new report entitled The Equity Crisis: Higher education access and success to 2030. It draws together analysis of the available data on higher education participation by proxy measures of socio-economic background from across different countries together with findings from a major global survey of universities and other organisations and focus groups with over 100 leaders in the field of equity.

The report asks whether UNESCO’s global goal 4.3 – eliminating inequalities in access to tertiary education by 2030 – can be achieved. It argues that this is highly unlikely – at least where participation by socio-economic background is concerned.

This matters because differences by socio-economic background are the defining aspect of inequality. As important as gender is, which is where UNESCO have framed this goal in terms of metrics so far, if socio-economic inequalities are not prioritised, then higher education can never claim to be equal.

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