Global rhetoric on access ‘does not always translate into action’

New book finds that although most nations want university open to all, gaps between talk and action can be wide

January 12, 2017
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Short of target: ‘you need to follow behind that commitment to access in terms of policy practice’

Nations investing in higher education will often want to be seen to be making access to university as equitable as possible, but the extent to which this perception matters “differs significantly” from country to country, and there is often a gap between intent to widen access and actual concrete policy among global higher education sectors.

These are among the conclusions of a new book, Access to Higher Education: Understanding Global Inequalities, which looks at access in 12 nations from six continents.

Graeme Atherton, the book’s editor and head of the UK-based National Education Opportunities Network, told Times Higher Education that there was a “commitment to and awareness of inequality in access to higher education across the world”.

“It is a reflection of how a nation sees itself and wishes to be seen,” Dr Atherton said. “The increasingly globalised public nature of HE, and how the number of graduates is perceived as related to economic prowess, means that none of the countries wishes to be seen as restricting opportunities to HE. They all want to be seen as an equitable country, yet the extent to which things are being done about it tend to differ.”

The book argues that different nations’ experiences enable the development of a “nationhood approach” as a framework for understanding access to higher education in any given country. It states that a “nuanced, holistic and connected discourse”, locating equity within a “broader set of challenges facing countries themselves and HE systems”, is needed.

Dr Atherton said that too often, analyses of access are focused on one area, with tuition fees or the cost of implementing policy being prime examples. The nationhood approach allows for a focus on themes such as for whom access should be widened, the extent to which access is politicised and how inequality is understood in the country. Other common threads include how factors preventing access for certain groups are understood and the shape and nature of higher education provision in a country, such as the mixture of public and private provision.

“You can’t just reduce these arguments to cost and tuition fee costs – important as they are,” he said. “[The chapters are] not talking about cost and tuition fees all the time; they’re talking about issues of one particular country, issues of what they’re trying to do about it.”

Another aspect that the book teases out is the disconnect between the commitment these countries profess to have towards access and the actual translation of rhetoric into action.

In her chapter on Canada, Diana Wickham, a strategic planner with experience spanning the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, argues that after the end of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation – which distributed more than C$3.14 billion (£1.92 billion) in need-based student bursaries and put a spotlight on access – there has been a “loss of a national focus on the issue”, which has led to some “fragmentation”. An article on South Africa argues that current government initiatives in the country on access “seem superficial”.

“The extent to which things are being done about [access] tend to differ,” Dr Atherton said.

“It doesn’t map evenly upon country type: in India they’re actually trying to do something about it, but of course the problem is it’s such a big system and it’s…[a] quasi-developed country in a way. Whereas in Germany, for example, they’re not doing so much about it. They’d argue of course [that] ‘we made HE free, the best you can do’, but you’re not seeing a system of access agreements [like in England].”

Dr Atherton warned that even in countries that have the “most developed HE systems”, there is not enough being done on access.

“I’m not convinced that across a lot of Europe it’s as big an issue as it should be. Rhetorically it is…Policy needs to support the rhetoric. Increasingly across the world you need to expand higher education and include the groups in society that are marginalised [from] doing that.

“As a commitment it’s OK, but ultimately you need to follow behind that in terms of policy practice. The book shows that this is variable, even in some of the advanced countries.”

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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