Fixing Higher Education’s Access Problem: Let’s Start With Better Data

Higher Education March 28, 2017

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on how to combat inequalities in participation in higher education. 

Systemic barriers to accessing higher education (HE) are restricting who benefits from globalisation while fuelling the rise of populist forces across the globe. UNESCO has recognized the problem. One of its 2015 lifelong learning goals is that by 2030, we should ensure that all women and men have equal access to high quality, affordable technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university. 
In 2014 I began a project to better understand who participates in HE by social background across the world. The final report ‘Charting Equity: Drawing the Global Access Map’ released last year showed that there was evidence to suggest that in 90% of countries across the world access to HE is unequal. It also showed though that more and better data is needed. The majority of countries are either not systematically collecting data on access to HE at all, focusing only on gender and not ethnicity, disability, region and other dimensions of inequality or not releasing the data they collect. 

This is a major problem because the evidence also suggests that using data smartly can unlock the action needed to make HE something that works for far more people. In South Africa for example more than 50% of black students drop out before they finish their degrees. The Siyaphumelela (We Succeed) project is looking at how universities can better share the data they already collect on students attendance, performance and background to identify those at greater risk of dropping out and then better support them. 
Where we have better data political engagement in access also follows. England collects more and better data than virtually any country in the world. Data sharing across government agencies is now allowing differences in educational achievement by income to be tracked through from when children start school, through HE and then into employment. The quality of data has given a platform to lobby for political action in England with the equivalent of nearly a billion dollars per year being invested in work to make HE access fairer. 

Governments taking ownership of data collection is vital. All European countries agreed to set targets to reduce inequality in HE access by 2009 but by 2015 less than 20% had done so. But before they can set the targets they need the data – less than half collect it on participation by anything beyond gender. The political will to recognize inequality in HE is lacking in many European countries. As an expert from Austria stated in the report:

‘sometimes it is better not to know something” I was once told by a member of the Ministry of Higher Education.’  

The global equity data charter
So how can data collection be improved? The Charting Equity report includes a global equity data charter which is a call to action for governments, the global HE community and HE providers. The charter recommends that governments should: 
Include questions looking at who participates/has participated in HE by social background in national and regional social censuses

There are two ways in which data on HE access is collected – as part of national censuses/surveys and by HE providers at entry and then collated by government. Where it is not being done so already questions on who participates should be integrated into national data collection strategies. 

Produce an annual report presented publicly to the national legislature that summarises the data available on higher education participation by social background, and the progress being made 
This is important for countries who collect a lots of data and those who collect little. The U.S, U.K and Australia almost collect too much data with various agencies, public and private, releasing it continually. It would be better to bring the most powerful evidence together in one place to act as the focus for efforts to lobby policymakers.
It is not just individual governments who can take action:

International organisations should work together to form a global equity data working group that brings together agencies and leading researchers across countries to strengthen data collection policy and practice.
The sharing of expertise and information is vital. Comparing countries where access to HE is concerned is difficult but if progress can be made here it will be a powerful lever to convince individual governments to recognize problems in their own countries, and act upon them.
Finally, HE providers must play their part: 
Ensure the integration of data on equitable access to HE in performance measures and institutional rankings systems

HE rankings ignore equity and access. But they are exerting an ever greater influence on governments and leaders. Universities need to take a lead by collecting data on who enrols in their courses and then exert pressure on rankings providers to include measures of equitable access in what they do.
Better data alone will not make HE more equal. But without it, the actions outlined across this series of articles which are needed to produce this greater equality are not likely to happen.


‘Charting Equity: Drawing the Global Access Map’ is a new report supported by Pearson. Read the full report here.