The New Equity Study
A 2018 study sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, All Around The World, reviewed the policy commitments of national governments to promote equal opportunities in access and success in higher education. The study found that, with the exception of a few fragile states recovering from a natural catastrophe or a major political crisis, equity is a priority theme in the higher education discourse of most governments.
Leading up to this year’s World Access to Higher Education Day (26 November 2019), we undertook a follow-up study to explore which equity promotion policies seem most successful, and to assess under what circumstances some policies work better than others. The new study focused on a small sample of countries from all corners of the planet: Australia, Austria, Colombia, South Africa and Vietnam.
The country case studies revealed the following strengths:
- Australia is one of the most advanced countries in terms of comprehensive equity policies;
- Austria is a leader when it comes to gender policies and support for refugees;
- Colombia has been a pioneer in student loans and retention policies;
- South Africa is making strides in addressing long-lasting inequalities from years of apartheid; and
- Vietnam attends many equity target groups but needs to invest more public resources to implement its comprehensive equity plan.
Key Findings at the National Level
We found that there is a dearth of rigorous impact studies evaluating equity policies in a rigorous manner. We also concluded that there is insufficient relevant data to measure disparities and monitor the effects and consequences of equity policies.
The country studies do confirm one of the major findings of the 2018 Lumina study: to achieve strong equity results there needs to be a high degree of alignment among leadership goals, policy goals, policy instruments, and allocated resources. It is particularly crucial to have enough resources to implement the national equity agenda effectively.
The country experiences also showed us that there is essential to have continuity in equity policies. Through the case studies we saw how politics often get in the way of sound policies. To improve access and success for under-represented groups in the long run, it is important to stay the course and carry on with both financial and non-monetary equity policies in a consistent way, independently of who is in government.
Additionally, we noted that Austria is the only country surveyed with equity promotion policies influenced and strengthened by supranational considerations. The Bologna process and the social dimension agenda promoted by the European Commission have both strengthened Austria’s equity agenda in higher education.
Finally, the case studies confirm the interaction of four structural elements that strongly influence the scope and magnitude of disparities in higher education:
- The secondary education system and the extent of streaming between general education and vocational training within high schools,
- The level of selectivity in the admission policies of universities,
- The degree of institutional differentiation of higher education systems, and
- The availability of financial aid for students from disadvantaged groups.
Key Findings at the Institutional Level
In the five case studies, we also reviewed institutional approaches and experiences to promoting access and success for under-served students. A survey of several universities in each country has revealed a number of good practices worth reporting.
- Institutions should have a clear strategy that can either take the form of a stand-alone document or be embedded in the institutional strategic plan. The University of Wollongong in Australia and Uniminuto in Colombia are good examples of this. Both have put a strong emphasis on equity as part of their core mission.
- Having a department responsible for all equity-related activities under the direct authority of an institutional leader is also an important factor of success.
- In low- and middle-income countries, innovative partnerships between higher education institutions, local authorities, and local businesses can generate additional resources to finance scholarships for needy student.
- Higher education institutions—and even governments—can share and model successful policies and programs initiated by individual universities. This happened, for example, with the successful mentorship program set up by the Universidad del Valle in Colombia.
- In addition to ensuring greater access, elite public or private universities that want to be more inclusive should strive to provide a welcoming environment for first-generation students, who often feel uncomfortable within an elitist institutional culture.
Moving forward, it will be important to put emphasis on four aspects:
- impact studies to measure which interventions and combinations of interventions are most effective;
- strong information systems to identify all equity groups and measure their progress in terms of access and graduation;
- identification and evaluation of effective policies to improve gender balance in STEM institutions and programs, in the top academic positions, and in university leadership functions.
- definition of the needs of students with disability, provision of sufficient resources, and empowerment of higher education institutions to place this dimension much higher on their equity agenda.
Read the full report ‘Measuring the Impact of Equity Promotion Policies: Lessons from National and Institutional Case Studies‘ by Jamil Salmi here.