So what did we learn from the first World Access to Higher Education Day? Well, it was a stylish event with over 100 international delegates attending a conference at Birmingham’s Aston University and others coming together in Australia and elsewhere around the world to mark the occasion.

It also saw publication of the first barometer report, which investigated higher education widening participation policy commitments around the globe?

Refreshingly honest

From my viewpoint, as a representative from University World News at the Birmingham conference, I found the stakeholders from Latin America, Asia, Europe, and beyond refreshingly honest about the need to do much more to breakdown the elitist nature of university access around the world.

World Access to Higher Education Day, or WAHED in academic acronym-speak, on 28 November looks destined to become a regular fixture on the international #HigherEd calendar for many years to come.

And the first global HE access barometer ‘All Around the World – Higher education equity policies across the globe’ should prove an excellent way of monitoring government commitments to widening participation.

With a bit of luck the author, global tertiary education expert Jamil Salmi, can follow up his first report by testing whether countries are putting their fine words into action and really opening up universities to more disadvantaged groups and individuals.

Among the lessons learnt, first from the report:

• Participation in higher education around the world continues to be unequal from a social background perspective, with a large number of countries paying only ‘lip service’ to the equity agenda

• Two-thirds of the 71 countries surveyed in Jamil’s report don’t have specific participation targets for any equity group

• UNESCO found that only 1% of the poorest 25-29 year olds had completed at least four years of higher education, compared to 20% of the richest in over 70 mainly low-income countries it surveyed in 2016

• Minority ethnic groups are frequent victims of “blind spots” for governments when devising widening access to HE policies

• Most nations focus on the barriers faced by traditional equity target groups, such as students from low-income households, girls and those with disabilities

• The main focus is on financial aid for the lowest income groups in access policies, but some countries, like Pakistan for instance, are using grants and scholarships to promote access to girls and other target groups

• Cuba is one of six higher education systems singled out for praise in Jamil’s report for its policy commitment to providing equal opportunities of access and success in higher education. The others are Australia, England, Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland

• Some new sub-categories of equity groups are emerging for government support to help access to HE, such as first-generation students in the US; victims of sexual abuse or violence in Colombia, Ecuador & Spain; children of invalid veterans or civil servants in Mexico, Russia & Vietnam and demobilised guerrilla fighters and paramilitaries in Colombia.

The WAHED conference at Aston University provided a fascinating illustration to some of the best practice to widening access from around the world and added to calls for action by governments and higher education leaders to do more to widen participation.

Among the messages aimed at policy makers:

Milagros Morgan from the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences

• “You also need to offer psychological support to students coming through the access route because they can struggle with many problems during their time at university,” said Milagros Morgan, vice rector for university services at the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences

• Some countries face specific challenges as they adapt to the need for a more skilled and flexible population. Among them is the Philippines which has just completed a major overhaul of its high school system, adding two more years to the length of education. Its universities had virtually no new students for two years and many are offering fee-waivers to expand access to poorer students, said Dr Arnel Uy from De La Salle University in Manila

• While higher education has expanded in many Asian countries, policies for diversity are often lacking at both the national and institutional level, said Professor NV Varghese from the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education in India. He warned: “The expansion of higher education will expand inequality unless affirmative policies targeting the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged are in place”

• Many European nations are still failing to grasp the widening access to higher education agenda

Dr Graeme Atherton

• There are exceptions such as Austria, said WAHED organiser Dr Graeme Atherton. He received a direct email from Heinz Faßmann, Austria’s Federal Minister of Education, Science and Research – the only government minister to pledge support for World Access to Higher Education Day. This said: “We approved the national strategy on the social dimension in higher education in 2017 by putting a special focus on equal access opportunities to higher education for students from all backgrounds. The WAHED initiative once more emphasises the global importance of this topic”

• The first terrorist attack in Paris in 2015 by people who were born and grew up as French citizens was a wake-up call to European governments regarding the social exclusion felt by some disadvantaged and marginalised young people. It led to European Union member states moving their focus from economic policy to inclusion, said Julie Anderson, policy officer at the European Commission

• The European Education Area was created to tackle continued inequality passed from one generation to the next and aims to reduce the number of people who only have basic skills to 15% by 2020 and increase the percentage of students from under-represented groups taking part in its mobility opportunities from its current level of just 11.5%, said Julie Anderson

• Of the 11.6 million new jobs created in the United States since the end of the recession in 2011, 11.5 million had gone to people with a college degree. “Almost all of those who have benefited from the American economic recovery are those with post-secondary qualifications,” said WAHED’s main sponsor, Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation in the US.

See more about Jamil’s barometer findings in University World News, ‘Most countries failing to tackle unequal access to HE’

And my report of the main discussions at the WAHED conference, ‘More to widening access to HE than just financial aid’

Individual country reports and the inter-governmental agency reports can be found on the World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) equity policy map


  • Main featured image from Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom