Opening up access to higher education across the world is the very mission of edX. Inequalities in both access and success in higher education are pervasive, transcending the developed and developing world. Research shows that in the 90% of the countries in the world where we have evidence, those from low income and marginalised backgrounds are less likely to progress to higher education.
We can point to particular trail blazing programmes such as the work of the Education Development Unit at the University of Cape Town in South Africa through the work of the in the Faculty of Commerce which has reduced dropout rates by black students by over 50%, and the Education Opportunity Programme (EOP) at the University of Berkeley. But this is not enough. It is the extent of the equity challenge that makes the first World Access to Higher Education Day so timely.
The aim of World Access to Higher Education Day or WAHED is to act as a catalyst that can mobilise action at the national and international level to address inequalities in access to higher education. Over 100 organisations from 30 countries are supporting the day. New research examined policies on equitable access to higher education in over 60 countries and 8 supranational organisations including the World Bank, European Union and ASEAN supported by the Lumina Foundation will also be launched. This research illustrates the unevenness in commitments addressing inequalities in access to higher education amongst policymakers. The goal is to help policy makers outline equity promotion strategies, define concrete targets to enroll and support students in from marginalized groups, or outline what resources will be devoted to supporting these groups to enter and succeed in higher education.
There is also a reliance on, and a belief in, the provision of financial support for students from low income backgrounds as the driver of equitable access. The reality is that such support is necessary but not sufficient to enable greater participation in higher education for those from marginalised groups. Far greater innovation is going to be needed if higher education is going to be available to the millions across the world who will need it in the 21st century – exactly the kind of innovation in how HE is delivered that edX and its global partner network ares pioneering. But this innovation needs underpinning by policy commitment. WAHED should act as a springboard to allow the global community of policymakers, universities and activists committed to equitable access to articulate what these policies are and advocate for them. All countries collecting data on who goes to higher education by all characteristics of social background and setting long term targets to increase the participation and success of these groups would be a start.
What could such a target look like? A pledge from governments and higher education providers to reduce gaps in participation by lower socioeconomic backgrounds by 30% by 2035 would be a start. In addition, national programmes that make universities work with schools to support the progression of those from marginalised groups as a condition of being able to confer degrees would be a second point. Finally, there is a role for pan-regional bodies such as the European Commission and ASEAN to create new international definitions of higher education which enable more flexible, technologically driven provision.
The actions above are necessary and urgent if higher education is to achieve its potential in addressing the major global challenge of inequality. They will not happen, however, without concerted campaigning at the international level, which is where WAHED comes in. While the challenge of equitable access to higher education in the 21st century may be inherently local, the solutions may well be global.