Understanding access to higher education in the last two decades
By Daniele Vieira, Takudzwa Mutize and Jaime Roser Chinchilla | 21 December 2020
A recent study developed by UNESCO IESALC entitled Towards universal access to higher education: international trends was launched in November 2020. The study looks into the past two decades to map and analyze the global access to higher education (HE) and the main trends it involves.
The evolution of higher education enrollment from 2000 to 2018
In the last twenty years, the higher education (HE) gross enrollment rate worldwide almost doubled, going from 19% to 38% between 2000 and 2018. The number of students currently enrolled in tertiary education (university and non-university) is 38% of the total population in the five‑year age group span immediately following secondary school graduation. It must be noted as well, however, that there is a gap between enrollment and graduation rates in higher education. Countries should therefore pay attention to drop-out rates as well as progression rates, achieving not only high enrollment rates, which measure the process but also high graduation rates, which measure the outcome of their efforts. Some of the countries with the fastest increases in graduation rates compared to their respective regions in the time frame studied are: Iran, which more than tripled its graduation rate; Mongolia, which went from below 18% in 1999 to above 51% in 2018; Albania, which multiplied it by four; Colombia, which went from less than 5% in 2002 to above 25% in 2018; and Saudi Arabia, which raised it from 11% in 1999 to 41% in 2019.
This worldwide increase has wide regional disparities, though every region has indeed increased its average numbers. Regions like South-East Asia or Latin America and the Caribbean have seen a great increase, both gaining around 30 points in their gross enrolment rate. North Africa and West Asia also had a considerable improvement, with a 25 points increase, followed by Europe and North America (22 points), Central and South Asia, and the Pacific region (17 points each). Comparing by relative increase, South-East Asia multiplied its rate by three during the period, followed closely by Central and South Asia with a 189% increase.
By contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa has had the slowest increase in participation rates, with only 5 points. However, if one considers the starting point of each region in the year 2000, we can see that Sub-Saharan Africa has had a high relative increase, obtaining a 125% increase over the period, similar to Latin America and the Caribbean’s relative increase. Additionally, it is very important to acknowledge that many countries in the region started this period around or below 1% of enrollment. Still, the growth has been insufficient to match the rising demand driven by improved access to primary and secondary education, a growing young population, and employment shifting away from agriculture to manufacturing and services.
Higher education enrollment by gender, evolution from 2000 to 2018
Men’s enrollment increased from 19% to 36%, while women’s enrollment went from 19% to 41% from 2000 to 2018, becoming the main beneficiaries of increased access to tertiary education worldwide. In some countries, this has served to fully or partially compensate for a previously unbalanced ratio against women. This was the case, for example, in Tajikistan, Cambodia, Lao, The Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Morocco, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and most of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, with the remarkable cases of Mozambique (with a gender parity index going from 0.34 to 0.8), Mauritania (from 0.2 to 0.6), U.R. Tanzania (0.27 to 0.65), Niger (0.32 to 0.63), Mauritania (0.21 to 0.61) and Eritrea (0.15 to 0.71). Mali (0.47 to 0.42) is the only country, from the ones studied, with a ratio below 0.8 where the ratio has stagnated during the entire period.
In aggregated terms, all regions except for Sub-Saharan Africa saw women either become the majority of their Higher Education students or increase their share if they were already a majority. Still, few countries have reached gender parity, most of them having one gender or the other being overrepresented. Additionally, a great overrepresentation of one gender or the other persists in many fields of study, and women are underrepresented in STEM studies, for instance.
Enrollment by income level
Despite the overall positive picture of the average increase in enrolment levels worldwide, not all segments of society are equally able to benefit from higher education. There are still significant differences in access, particularly for income groups. The poorest population continues to lag behind, with 10% access to higher education in 2018 compared to 77% of the higher income sector in the same year.
In terms of increase, low and lower-middle-income groups have more than doubled their enrollment rates since 2000, but their increase was moderate in terms of percentage points. The upper-middle-income group benefited from the greatest increase: it more than tripled its enrolment rate, with an increase of 35 percentage points.
In the next section, we address some of the factors that can explain this lack of equity.
Barriers to achieving universal access to higher education
Access to HE is very crucial for every country. It is the basis for a wide range of critical issues such as reducing unemployment and decreasing poverty. However, not every country can easily provide an increase in HE’s access. There are many barriers to achieving universal access, including poverty, crisis and emergency, high tuition fees, exclusive entrance examinations, geographic mobility, and some forms of discrimination.
One of the reasons some students are not in HEI is that their families cannot pay for their education. Prospective students usually have to choose between attending school and working to support their families. Another critical issue related to poverty is poor nutrition, which leads to illnesses and obstructs educational capabilities. This not only affects enrolment into HE, but poverty also affects academic performance and completion. It has been shown that regional non-enrolment percentages vary in line with child labor incidence (1). In Africa, for instance, population growth, a weak economy, famine, and armed conflict have contributed to keeping child labor high and school attendance low. Low enrolment at these lower schooling levels affects tertiary GERs, which may partly explain the low GER in Sub- Saharan Africa, which has the highest incidence of poverty and child labor.
Crisis and Emergency
War and conflict have a systemic impact on higher education. Universities are left damaged by attacks or occupation by armed groups. Staff and students are killed or face forced displacement, while institutions are weakened as post-conflict financial resources are allocated to basic services first. HE systems are often not a priority during post-conflict recovery. Today, only 1% of the world’s more than 65 million people displaced by war and conflict attend university.
Institutional Barriers: high tuition fees and exclusive entrance examinations
The two primary institutional barriers present in most HE systems are tuition fees and entrance examinations. Tuition increases are very clearly associated with diminished attendance and completion rates. The university will be out of reach for those who come from poor households and do not have significant financial contributions. Entrance examinations and requirements seem a justifiable means of assessing whether students are equipped to engage in a particular course. Yet, in many cases, they privilege students from high-quality schools and those who have been able to pay for preparatory courses. The meritocratic principles of university admissions are hard to disentangle from unfair social advantages and disadvantages. On the other hand, the introduction of standardized national entrance exams and affirmative actions in many countries, e.g., Brazil and Tajikistan, has reduced this entrance gap.
Participation in higher education can be impacted by the individual’s domicile and the geographical distance of institutions. The reasons for this are complex, as regional disparities may be due to socio-economic and geographical factors. However, access to higher education in terms of travel distance can be a very real issue for some, particularly those who live in remote or rural areas (2), and where HEI are concentrated in urban parts of the country.
People with disabilities often face physical accessibility issues, such as a lack of ramps or appropriate school transportation, making it difficult to get to HEI. Refugees often face administrative barriers that prevent them from enrolling, effectively barring them from education systems. These include lack of supportive infrastructure and capable teachers to address cultural issues and differences and nonrecognition of pre-university qualifications obtained in their home countries, lack of knowledge about access to opportunities and necessary documentation for scholarship applications (3).
Drivers in achieving universal access to higher education
The increase in access to HE in the past 20 years is a result of many factors, including a set of driving forces including: economic development, rise in middle-class aspirations, growth of private institutions, and growth of distance education institutions.
The growth of participation in HE is often represented as a function of the economic need for more skills and higher productivity in the markets for human capital (4). There is a well-established relationship between gross domestic product (GDP) growth and tertiary education enrolments. This relationship is particularly strong for emerging economies with GDP per capita less than US$10,000, where a small increase in the GDP contributes to a significant rise in the enrollment rate. In practice, this is likely to reflect rising household incomes, greater wealth, growing middle classes, demand from parents to provide their children with tertiary education, and a higher gradient of skills demand from structurally changing economies. It may also reflect an increased fiscal capacity of governments to fund and expand tertiary education access (5). The high growth rates experienced in South Asia may be why the GER of the region is expanding at a fast pace.
Rise in middle-class aspirations
The expansion of HE is powered by economic growth, by the ambitions of families to advance or maintain social position and of students for self-realization. In contemporary societies, those desires, particularly the hopes of parents for children, have become primarily focused on formal education, which is seen as the privileged pathway to professional work. Over time, the social demand for HE accumulates and HE provision becomes large, growing and increasingly ubiquitous. Thus, universal desires for social betterment are articulated through HE systems that are themselves expanding. Middle-income countries with rapid growth rates in higher education have a few things in common. Along with a growing pool of eligible students, they have a growing middle class with higher occupational aspirations and a regulatory environment that is becoming more stable. They provide funding for educational infrastructure and for salaries and development of teachers, staff and administrators (4).
Growth of private institutions
HEI are diversifying alongside their student bodies. Private institutions in particular have grown in number, size, specialization, and mission. New kinds of private providers have emerged, which include transnational provision in the form of international branch campuses and international online providers (6). These are creating more places in the HE systems while many governments reduce their direct funding role in HE. Private enrolments have been growing steadily: they now account for 30% of all global enrolments (7). In Latin America and the Caribbean, private enrolments account for 49% of the total. In Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru, more than 60% of students in 2015 were enrolled in private institutions, along with more than 80% of students in Chile and Paraguay. In Asia, private enrolments make up 36% on average, where countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are experiencing the same trend. It is important to note, nevertheless, that there are doubts regarding the quality of private HEI worldwide. While they have contributed significantly to the expansion of HE in all regions, granting access to tertiary education to many students, this sometimes happened at the cost of quality. Moreover, in many countries, for instance those in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, middle and upper classes are the ones benefitting from quality education provided in public institutions, while low-income students are more often granted access to private institutions with lower quality provision (7).
Growth of open distance institutions
Similar to private institutions, open distance education institutions have grown as well, as a result also of new technologies and internet dissemination. Instead of research programs or other types of specialized study, many new institutions provide broad access programs that have less stringent entrance criteria (7). Open education providers are also gaining ground. For example, gross enrolment rates in Turkey grew from 30% in 2004 to 86% in 2014, in part due to distance education enrolments.
To further increase access to HE, the following actions are crucial for policymakers and HEI, taking into particular account the inclusion and retention of vulnerable individuals:
For policy makers:
- Development of national mechanisms to evaluate progress to ensure the right to HE and inclusion at the national level, in accordance with international norms and standards.
- Provision of extra support to students classified as “at-risk” individuals, in terms of academic needs and socioeconomic needs, to enable them to access HE and increase retention.
- Provision of continuous funding support: grants and financial aid for HE which have a significant number of students from vulnerable groups.
- Evaluation and monitoring of the HEI admissions criteria to ensure that all students have a fair chance of getting into the best universities, regardless of their backgrounds.
- Benchmarking with agencies like UNESCO to share successful experiences and find sound solutions that are participatory and inclusive.
- Generation of data disaggregated by sex, disability, race, ethnic or social origin, economic status, religion, language, geographic location, and other status to ensure the visibility of all groups of students in relation to HE enrolment and graduation, thus identifying students who need more support due to family variables, academic deficiencies, socioeconomic status, etc.
- Provision of bridge programs to help compensate the lower academic preparation of certain students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Engagement in race/gender/inequality conversations and development of campaigns refuting the image of unfair selectivity of HEI: students from underprivileged groups might feel more welcome in the institutions and know that their struggles are acknowledged by the HEI.
- Use of technology to further increase access. Technology has proved beneficial for access to higher education, especially through the use of open, distance and online learning which has enabled access to higher education at low cost. Leveraging appropriate technology is still an important aspect that needs to be focused on. Mobile phones are particularly useful in this regard, given the widespread availability and costs that are becoming increasingly affordable.
Daniele Vieira is a policy analyst at UNESCO IESALC. Takudzwa Mutize and Jaime Roser Chinchilla are junior policy analysts at UNESCO IESALC.
- British Council. (2012). The Shape of Things to Come: Higher Education Global Trends and Emerging Opportunities to 2020. British Council: Manchester.
- Kinser, K., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Foreign Outposts of Colleges and Universities. International Higher Education, 66, 2–3.
- Marginson, S. (2016). The Worldwide Trend to High Participation Higher Education: Dynamics of Social Stratification in Inclusive Systems. Higher Education, 72, 413–434.
- F. (2010). Barriers to Widening Access to Higher Education. Scottish Parliament Information Centere: Gàidhlig.
- Putnick, D. L., & Bornstein, M. H. (2015). Is Child Labor a Barrier to School Enrollment in Low- and Middle-Income Countries? International journal of educational development, 41, 112–120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2015.02.001
- Sherab, D. (2016). Access to Higher Education for Refugees in Jordan. Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development: Amman.
- (2017). Six Ways to Ensure Higher Education Leaves No One Behind. Policy Paper 30.
 The gender parity index is the result of dividing the enrolment ratio of women by that of men. In this index 1 represents perfect gender equity, numbers below 1 under-representation of women and numbers above 1 over-representation of women. For example, a ratio of 0.6 means that there are 0.6 women per each man studying in HE, while a ratio of 1.67 means that there are 0.6 men for each woman studying in HE.