Global map of higher education access could reshape rankings

Study being launched at THE World Academic Summit highlights challenges of collecting comparable data on social mobility

September 27, 2016
Indian women and children standing beside well
Source: Getty

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The release of a university league table is always followed by questions about why an institution’s commitment to social mobility cannot play some part in determining its position.

Last week’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017 were no exception, with the top spots being dominated by institutions that struggle to shake off perceptions that they are elitist: in the UK, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and, in the US, the likes of Harvard and Stanford.

There are some who would argue that a university cannot be described as “world class” if it does not have access at the heart of its mission.

But is it really possible to compare global universities’ performance on widening participation when they operate in countries that vary so much in terms of their economic backdrop, their social divisions and their ethnic make-up?

This is the question explored by a report being released this week at the THE World Academic Summit at the University of California, Berkeley.

The study, supported by Australia’s University of Newcastle and education multinational Pearson, finds that what data there are suggest that inequalities in access to higher education are “pervasive” worldwide. For example, a recent index produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) found that men were more likely to go to university than women in 58 countries, while women were over-represented in 114.

The global access data map

The global access data map (29 September 2016)

Source: Charting Equity in Higher Education: Drawing the Global Access Map

Beyond gender, however, while data collected by the likes of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank as well as by individual countries do indicate widespread inequality of access according to social background, the report finds that this information is much patchier, and is often based on very different definitions of what constitutes disadvantage.

Thirty-six of the 50 countries examined in more detail for the report collected data on students’ socio-economic background, but this could be measured according to family income, parental occupation, the neighbourhood that a student lives in, or any number of other factors.

Twenty-nine collected information on students’ ethnicity, with this being the major access concern in South Africa; but what constitutes an ethnic minority can vary by nation and, in a country that has been stricken by ethnic divides such as Rwanda, even asking such questions of undergraduates would be against government practice.

Other data categories include age, disability, language, religion or refugee status. But again, the variety of this information makes it very difficult to construct an overall equity index.

Significantly, the report finds that, while it is usually the wealthier countries that have more sophisticated data collection, this is not always the case; and that “developing” countries such as Chile, China and South Africa have been making significant efforts to improve their systems.

Graeme Atherton, one of the report’s authors and the director of the UK’s National Education Opportunities Network, said that the research revealed how political will as well as resources shaped a country’s desire to collect data on, and therefore to address, access inequality.

And he argued that the report, demonstrating the global nature of the access challenge, was a first step towards improving awareness of the problem, and the role that data can play in tackling it.

“We collect such rich data in the UK as a result of a political decision but there are many other countries, even across Europe, which don’t collect data as substantially as they might,” Dr Atherton said. “To have the ideal comparisons between countries we would like is always going to be challenging, but there is much progress that could be made if there is a will to do so.”

Missing pieces: statistics jigsaw

The number of survey countries where data are collected nationally and/or regionally on participation by: Number of countries
Gender 47
Socio-economic background 36
Learners from rural background 33
Older or mature learners 33
People with refugee status 32
Disability 31
Ethnicity 29
People who speak a particular language 20
Indigenous groups 16
Religion 14
Other groups under-represented in higher education 14

Note: Table is based on data from 50 countries
Source: Charting Equity in Higher Education: Drawing the Global Access Map

The report, co-authored by Constantino Dumangane and Geoff Whitty, proposes a global equity data charter for higher education that calls on governments to collect information on the social background of students and to make this publicly available. It argues that international organisations should form a global centre for higher education access data collection, in order to conduct stronger comparative analysis.

Dr Atherton said that comparative data could allow for top performers to share best practice, and for a spotlight to be shone on systems that are lagging behind. But he also argued that such data could allow for access to become a part of rankings, something that he said would allow league tables to better reflect the full breadth of institutional missions.

“Rankings are powerful and they shape views of what world-class higher education means,” Dr Atherton said. “If people believe access to higher education is important, access should be part of rankings.

“My personal view is that being open to students from all backgrounds is an essential part of what higher education is all about and, if you are not making strong efforts to do that, your world-class status should be questioned.”

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