Is equal access to higher education in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa achievable by 2030?
Sonia Ilie, Pauline Rose
Our paper begins by identifying the current situation regarding inequalities in higher education access by wealth and gender across countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which are furthest from achieving the new goal, drawing on recent data from Demographic and Health Surveys in 35 countries. In some of the countries, very few, if any, young people from poor households reach higher education. Wealth gaps are further reinforced by gender gaps, such that the poorest young women are least likely to enter higher education.
In those countries where access to higher education has expanded, gaps in access between the rich and poor, and between young women and men, are particularly wide—implying that expansion has primarily benefited the elite. Our analysis further identifies that wide inequalities in higher education reflect inequalities in primary and secondary schooling. As such, unless inequalities earlier in the educational system are addressed, the higher education target included in the global goals is unlikely to be achieved.
Focus on sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia
Much of the research on higher education expansion and equity has focused on middle- and high-income countries, which generally display patterns that place them closer to a ‘mass’ or ‘universal phase’ of higher education. By contrast, there is more limited research investigating how access to higher education varies across and within low- and lower-middle-income countries. From the evidence that is available, it is apparent that there have been developments in access in these countries, although most are still in the ‘elite access phase’, and growth has not been equitable (Carnoy et al. 2013; Salmi and Bassett 2014; UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2014; Chien and Montjourides 2016). As a result, Salmi and Bassett (2014) call for ‘‘equity promotion policies to increase opportunities for disadvantaged students are those that combine financial assistance with measures to overcome non-financial obstacles’’ (p. 365).
In many of the countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the growth in enrolment has placed a strain on public higher education institutions, with financial resources to state institutions not growing at the same pace as enrolment. This is leading to a growth in private institutions in response to increased demand for places in some contexts (Teferra and Altbachl 2004; Jamshidi et al. 2012). This rise in private provision may pose challenges to the mitigation of existing inequalities via differences in the type and quality of private higher education provision that different population groups can access (e.g. Susanti 2011; Tilak 2014).
International data: source for understanding patterns of higher education access
Globally, young women are more likely to attend higher education than young men. However, in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa this pattern is reversed: 81 young women are enrolled for every 100 young men in South Asia, with a ratio of 64 young women to 100 young men in sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2015). These data are, however, unable to provide patterns on other dimensions of inequality, notably according to wealth status.
Higher education access wealth-related inequalities: wide gaps
In addition, we find that only four of the 35 countries (Comoros and Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan) display a pattern whereby more than 5 % of the poorest half of young people gain access to higher education. Even in these countries, a rich young person is 3–5 times more likely to attend higher education than a poor young person.
Higher education access gender inequalities: young women at a slight disadvantage
Across the 35 countries, young men under the age of 25 are, on average, more likely to gain access to higher education than young women in the same-age group (Fig. 4).
Gender and poverty barriers to access: poorest youngest women chronically underrepresented
In 24 of the 30 countries where at least some of the poorest are enrolled, poorest young women are least likely to be in higher education. In 15 of these countries, the richest young men are most likely to be enrolled; in the majority of the other countries, the difference to the benefit of women is marginal, with the exception of Comoros and Namibia.
While gender inequality continues to be a cause for concern, the magnitude of gender gaps is smaller than that of wealth-driven gaps. However, given that countries with higher rates of higher education participation also tend to have wider gender gaps amongst both the rich and the poor, there is a danger that, as higher education systems expand in countries with lower levels of access, so could the gender gaps. This suggests the need to put in place strategies to address gender and wealth inequalities early on.
Is a target of equal access to higher education by 2030 attainable?
Wide inequalities in access to higher education that we have identified for some of the world’s poorest countries suggest that the achievement of a target of equal access by 2030 could be a distant dream. We recognise that the current phrasing of the post-2015 target focuses on equal access for all men and women; however, we argue that this can only be achieved if wealth gaps are narrowed given these drive gender gaps.
These trends indicate the gap in higher education participation of poor and rich has, if anything, widened over time, as the rich have mostly been the beneficiaries of any expansion that has occurred in higher education provision. If these trends continue, the potential to attain a goal of equality of access in higher education by 2030 seems remote.
Do prior education levels suggest achieving equal access in higher education can be reached?
If higher education rates are to increase for different population groups, this requires sufficient numbers to be making it to secondary education which, in turn, requires them already to have completed primary schooling. In countries where there are wide inequalities at these levels, with low levels of access for the poorest already apparent earlier in the system, achieving equal access in higher education is likely to be extremely difficult. Such a pattern would indicate that, to achieve the desired goal for higher education, policy attention needs to take a balanced approach to equitable expansion across the system overall, with a focus on increasing access equitably in primary and secondary school in the first instance if equitable higher education access is to be achieved.
Firstly, in six countries, even amongst the richest, primary participation is under 80 %, and there are wide wealth inequalities at this level of education. These countries are all geographically clustered in West Africa, corroborating previous evidence that the region requires most progress to achieve universal primary education (UNESCO 2014, 2015). Across these six countries, the higher education participation rates are consistently under 0.5 % for those in the poorest half of households, but vary significantly amongst the richest, from 1.8 % in Niger to 15 % in Guinea. These findings suggest that these countries will need to focus their attention on expanding access to primary schooling for the poorest, while simultaneously paying attention to promoting equity of opportunity throughout the education system.
The fact that inequalities between the richest and the poorest are most pronounced at higher education level does not mean that all the mechanisms by which equity can be pursued only reside at higher education level. This by no means a focus on primary (or secondary) education alone. Rather, we would urge that a system-wide approach be taken in the search for the interventions and actions that are most likely to lead to declining inequality between the richest and the poorest at all levels of education, which will also benefit higher education.
Using recent household survey data, we have shown that, across countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the levels of attendance of higher education remain generally low, with fewer than 5 % of young people gaining access in many countries. The poorest in these countries are least likely to gain access, with almost none of the poorest in some countries reaching higher education. Wealth gaps are reinforced by gender gaps, resulting in the poorest young women most likely to be excluded from higher education. Our evidence therefore suggests that it is necessary to simultaneously tackle both unequal levels of higher education access and the levels of education where wealth gaps begin to manifest most strongly.
More positively with respect to gender inequalities, since greater progress has been made towards narrowing gender gaps earlier in the system on average, it may be more feasible to achieve parity for young men and women, which could mean that the global goal of equal access for men and women could be achieved. However, our analysis implies that this will be reached by maintaining access to the richest young men and women, leaving the poorest behind. Equality for all would also require structural changes that address other structural inequalities that interact with poverty (including disability for instance) for which comparable data are less readily available.
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