Too many countries ‘paying lip service’ to widening access

Fewer than one in three nations set specific participation targets for disadvantaged groups, study finds

November 28, 2018
Jelly lips

Too many countries are paying only “lip service” to widening participation, according to a major study that found that less than one in three of the nations examined set specific access targets for disadvantaged groups.

The review of widening participation policies in 71 countries, authored by tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi and published to coincide with the first World Access to Higher Education Day on 28 November, says that most states have affirmed that academically able students should not be excluded from university courses because of disadvantages that they have faced.

However, only 32 per cent of countries have defined specific participation targets for any equity group, such as students from poor backgrounds and ethnic minorities, or those who have disabilities. Once Western Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean were excluded – the two regions where targets are most prevalent – only 17 per cent of nations were found to have set clear objectives.

Barely one in 10 countries worldwide (11 per cent) have a comprehensive equity policy document, with another 11 per cent having such a document for a specific group.

“A number of countries are still paying only ‘lip service’ to the equity agenda, meaning that, beyond the general policy statements about expansion of access, governments do not spell out clear equity promotion strategies, define concrete targets to enrol and support students in vulnerable conditions, mobilise sufficient resources targeted to under-represented groups, and put in place actions to help students complete their degrees,” writes Dr Salmi, the former tertiary education coordinator at the World Bank.

The report adds that many countries’ attempts to widen participation are too “traditional”, focusing on providing financial support via loans, scholarships or fee waivers, rather than efforts to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds can succeed in higher education, such as recognition of prior learning and academic counselling, which are often regarded as being more effective.

However, the report approves of a gradual trend towards non-monetary interventions, such as outreach programmes and use of contextualised admissions, and notes that a few governments have begun to complement the direct support offered to students with incentives for universities themselves.

Graeme Atherton, director of the UK’s National Education Opportunities Network, which is coordinating events around the globe for World Access to Higher Education Day, said that countries’ commitment to access was “encouraging” but that level of detail about how equality could be achieved “varies greatly”.

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Reader's comments (2)

Is setting targets appropriate? Letting students in to fill a quota rather than on merit can set the poor dears up to fail. Providing access to preparatory courses to get disadvantaged people up to the required standard is far better, along with financial support to enable them to live while studying.
The danger is raising expectations in people who may not have an appropriate infrastructure to support entry into university. Clearing is also problematic. Students who miss the grade for conditional offers are refused entry to a course that they may have spent a great deal of time preparing for and are suitable are often overlooked in favour of late applicants with less suitability but marginally higher grades.