Commemorating the Third World Access to Higher Education Day

Today, we are sharing a blog authored by our friends at World Access to Higher Education Day. Take a read to learn more about what the organization is doing and how they are working to create access and opportunity for all.

Last week marked the third World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) which is the global commemoration day focusing on inequalities in access and success in higher education and how to address these inequalities. Participants from over 100 countries came together through a series of 6 online conferences each led by an organisation from a different continent. New research which I have authored and was released to mark the third WAHED, and looks at how universities and governments have been supporting their students from low income and marginalised backgrounds since the global COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring. 

This research shows it has never been more important to focus on inequalities in access and outcomes in higher education. A feature of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affects individuals and communities has been its tendency to exacerbate existing problems. Higher Education is no exception. Students from low income and other marginalised backgrounds are already far less likely to progress to higher education and achieve their potential when they get there. 

The research finds that across richer and poorer nations, less privileged students have been struggling with the economic impact of COVID-19 on themselves and their families and the impact of digital divides on access to the internet. Here, the picture was mixed. In 60% of countries some form of additional financial support that was either focused on low income students or included them was offered, usually in the form of grants or reduced tuition fees. This kind of support was found more frequently in the higher income countries, but there were also examples of countries really feeling the impact of the pandemic supporting their low income students — in particular the Philippines, Indonesia and Colombia. However, while many governments were recognizing the need to give some form of direct financial support to low income students there was less attention being placed on digital divides. While there were some exceptions, for example in Ireland where 15 million Euros had been given to universities to invest in IT equipment for low income students, the norm was for universities themselves to be left to address this issue. 

How to balance the necessity of online learning during the pandemic and the opportunities such learning brings with the problem of inequalities in digital access is a huge challenge for many universities across the world. The survey showed the need for global forums where solutions to these challenges can be shared which is where World Access to Higher Education Day comes in. Capturing the huge potential of online learning to extend access to higher education after the pandemic abates will be one of the key themes. It is imperative that from the misery of COVID-19 some positive things can emerge. Where higher education access is concerned, the push that the pandemic has provided to online learning has the potential to be such a thing. It will require global dialogue to make this happen now though. World Access to Higher Education Day will make a big contribution to this dialogue.