Australia leads world on university access – will others follow?

Analysis of data from the THE Impact Rankings suggests big gaps remain on helping poorest communities globally to get into university

November 26, 2019
pulling barbed wire

Helping disadvantaged groups to enter and then succeed in higher education is a goal that is often lauded by universities and policymakers around the globe.

But as a report timed to coincide with last year’s World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) found, this issue is also one that tends to receive a surfeit of “lip service” but a paucity of action.

Therefore, could one way to galvanise progress in the area be to establish some kind of common framework to compare universities and sectors and identify which are actually making strides?

A look at the data in the inaugural Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings – to mark this year’s WAHED – gives a potential flavour of what such a framework might include.

Although limited by the number of institutions that submitted data to the ranking, and particularly how this varies by sector, the analysis suggests that regions with a firm strategy at a national level do tend to outshine the rest.

The analysis takes data from areas of the Impact Ranking that attempt to gauge university performance on specific socio-economic access issues in higher education: the prevalence of students who are the first in their immediate family to go to university; the number of students admitted from some of the poorest nations in the world; and the steps that an institution takes to help the wider community to access higher education through outreach activities.

Although only about half the institutions in the Impact Ranking have enough data to be eligible for the analysis, there is a diverse mix of universities from developed and developing systems that gain the highest scores.



In terms of sectors, Australia comes out on top overall, with the highest average score for both the number of first-generation students and for outreach. It also achieves a solid mark for its intakes from low-income and lower middle-income countries.

Also performing well are Chile, with strong scores on first-generation students and outreach, and Russia, which possibly receives a boost from its universities drawing students from former Soviet republics, such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are categorised by the World Bank as lower middle-income economies.

At the other end of the scale is Japan – out of the three core areas analysed, it scores well only for outreach. Behind Japan are Iran and Pakistan, whose institutions gain relatively low scores in every area.

Graeme Atherton, director of the UK’s National Education Opportunities Network, a key supporter of WAHED, said some of the findings – such as Australia’s strong showing – did chime with official research on the topic.

For instance, a fresh report on access strategies released for WAHED 2019, produced by Jamil Salmi, former tertiary education coordinator for the World Bank, notes that Australia is “one of the most advanced countries in terms of effective equity policies”.

Dr Atherton said the nature of information on access, which was highly dependent on local context and often not easily comparable across regions, made it very difficult to find a framework for measuring international progress on the issue.

However, he said, establishing a good framework had a real prospect of “changing institutional behaviour” given the impact of university comparisons in areas such as research. There was also a massive opportunity for universities in different sectors to learn from each other.

More generally, Dr Atherton added, many more universities worldwide needed to engage in access issues, with the research elite – despite representing only a small number of students worldwide – potentially having a key role to play.

“Internationally, I think the focus should be on supporting students into higher education overall. I don’t think it should primarily just be on the elite or more research-intensive institutions,” he said.

“But they have a crucial role to play because, like it or not, they are perceived as sectoral leaders, and if they engage in this work, that sends out a message to the rest of the sector, both globally and within countries, about where the direction of travel should be.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: On access, Australia sets pace, but will others follow?

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