Access and Equity: A Comparative Perspective

A group of Fulbright Scholars addresses major challenges to the expansion of quality higher education around the world.
March 17, 2008

After a year of researching issues of access and equity in higher education in regions round the world, the Fulbright New Century Scholars gathered in Washington Friday to share snapshots of their comparative research on affirmative action, barriers to college access, and the role of private colleges, among other topics.

The 36 scholars, led by D. Bruce Johnstone, director of the International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Project at the State University of New York at Buffalo (and a former SUNY chancellor), represent 25 countries, with 12 coming from the United States. In pursuing their research agendas, the scholars collaborated with one another in four working groups: “The Cultural and Societal Norms That Affect Access and Equity in Education,” “Mechanisms Within and Beyond the Schools That Affect Access to Higher Education,” “Financial Resources and Policies that Enhance Access to Higher Education,” and “Arguments, Actors and Policies for Postsecondary Educational Equity: A Comparative Case Study.”

They met for a third and final time in Washington, following meetings in Buffalo and Mexico City and visits to host universities, of several months duration, in countries other than their own. They were the fifth group of scholars to participate in the interdisciplinary, collaborative New Century program, and the second focused on higher education issues.

In their final deliberations Friday, here’s a sampling of what they had to say:

On affirmative action, a common area of inquiry among a number of grantees, Michele S. Moses, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, conducted a comparative study of the justifications for affirmative action in the United States and Brazil. She found that in Brazil, where affirmative action for black students dates only to the 1990s, it is most commonly justified as a moral imperative, a human rights issue.

In the United States, however, where the policy has been in place much longer, she found that instrumental arguments have evolved as the primary justifications. These include a focus on the positive educational benefits flowing from diversity, and affirmative action as a remedial enterprise, meant to help students catch up. On that latter note, she referenced President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous 1965 quote: ''You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Yet, she added, the moral language used to justify affirmative action in Brazil also plays a role in the United States – among the policy's opponents, who describe ending affirmative action as a civil rights issue.

On barriers to access that students encounter before they get to college, speakers were careful Friday to stress cultural and attitudinal barriers as well as financial ones. Structurally speaking, in a study on access and equity in East-Central Europe, Petr Mateju, head of the Department for Education and Social Stratification at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic’s Institute of Sociology, argued there’s a need for decreased differentiation at the secondary education level and greater diversification at the tertiary level, which is primarily oriented around the region's research universities.

Elaborating in an interview after his presentation on East-Central European pre-college enrollments, he said that those students channeled early on into vocational training -- about 35 percent of students -- do not receive a secondary degree that even allows them the opportunity to move on to tertiary education. On the other extreme, students selected to the most elite secondary institutions at age 11 have a 90 percent chance of getting into college. In the middle are schools with a technical bent, but from which students can still graduate with a diploma that colleges will accept. Among those graduates, 40 to 45 percent go to university, Mateju said. In his presentation, he emphasized the strong role of social background on what secondary school a student attends.

“The other problem is the tertiary sector is not differentiated enough” to absorb students of varying backgrounds and preparation levels, he said.

"You reinforce the effect of social background on college entry."

On the growing and unmet demand for higher education in many parts of the world, scholars painted a picture Friday of massive, often tuition-free public higher education systems under stress and private institutions, a mix of nonprofit and for-profit, proliferating – in a way not fast enough, but also too fast from a quality control standpoint.

“The major problem is that of a mismatch between student numbers and facilities caused by resource constraints,” said Abdu Kasozi, of Uganda's National Council for Higher Education. “The funds available for higher ed are very few,” he continued, estimating that most of the nations in East Africa allocate no more than 2 percent of their gross domestic product to higher education. “What little there is is not shared equitably.”

In a complementary presentation focused on Egypt, Iman El-Kaffass, who represented the American University in Cairo in the Fulbright Program (and recently signed on as director of outreach and student development at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, under construction in Saudi Arabia), offered recommendations for decreasing the pressures on public education systems.

“The public expectation is the government is responsible for funding education,” she said of Egypt. Yet, there is demand, she said, that “the government is incapable of meeting.”

Among her recommendations, which she plans to present to the Egyptian government, El-Kaffass argues for a need to encourage expansion of the private sector, which educates only 7 percent of Egyptian students, and for public/private partnership universities, in which the government provides land for institutions that would be privately managed.

With growing privatization being an obvious implication of unmet demand, however, “The regulatory task has become more and more difficult,” cautioned Anthony Welch, a professor in the University of Sydney’s Department of Education and Social Work who researched higher education in Southeast Asia.

And, added Kavita Sharma, the principal of Hindu College, in India, “What happens to talented but poor students who cannot pay for education in the private sector?”

Photo: Kaye Evans-Lutterodt

Jamil Salmi, of the World Bank.

The theme of "cost sharing," or instituting tuition and fee structures at resource-starved public universities in more countries -- and offsetting costs for poorer students through targeted financial aid – is prominent in several of the Fulbright Scholars’ endeavors. For example, El-Kaffass, of Egypt, said that free public higher education is constitutionally protected in the country. She described a goal nevertheless of raising awareness of her argument that the fee-free policy means subsidized education for those who can afford to pay, and that targeted subsidies would allow for better access and quality.

Naming key misconceptions that must be overcome in improving access and equity in higher education worldwide, “The first one is to believe free is fair,” Jamil Salmi, tertiary education coordinator for the World Bank's Human Development Network, said during a response panel following the scholars’ presentations. (The response panel also included Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, an education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and New Century Scholar, and David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.) “In fact, it is almost exactly the opposite.”

“In the name of equity, we share mediocrity.”


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