Access Gaps in Developing Countries

As higher education expands, enrollment of female and low-income students may not grow much at all.

September 16, 2016

Global higher education access targets are likely to be missed, according to a study that found that women are at the back of the queue when university enrollment widens in the developing world.

An analysis of higher education participation rates in 35 countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa by University of Cambridge researchers detected “extremely low” rates for people under 25 in almost all of them: below 10 percent in 31 of the countries, and below 5 percent in 20.

Drawing on U.S.-funded Demographic and Health Surveys conducted between 2007 and 2014, Sonia Ilie and Pauline Rose found that enrollment was generally lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, with participation among the young below 2 percent in countries including Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda and Tanzania.

However, average attendance rates mask “vast differences” in participation between the poorest and richest in each country, write Ilie and Rose in the journal Higher Education. There are five countries where the number of poor young people going to university is “not statistically different from zero”: Burkina Faso, Liberia, Malawi, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Tanzania.

More than 5 percent of the poorest half of young people went to university in only four of the 35 countries -- Comoros, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan -- and, even in these nations, richer citizens were three to five times more likely to enroll.

Ilie and Rose found that the overall access trend for poorer young people over the past 40 years has been “one of stagnation.” Richer people have benefited the most, although this has often been relatively gradual: participation rates are estimated to have increased by fewer than five percentage points in 22 of the 35 countries.

Given that the gap in participation between rich and poor “has, if anything, widened over time,” Ilie and Rose wrote that the chances of meeting the goal of equal university access for all women and men by 2030, set out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, seem “remote.”

The prospects for women are particularly concerning, add Ilie and Rose. They find that, in countries where access is restricted to a very small proportion of under-25s overall, the difference in participation between men and women is small.

However, in 24 of the 30 countries where at least some of the poorest are enrolled, poor young women were the least likely to enter university and, in 15, rich men were the most likely to. In Guinea, the paper says, less than 0.1 percent of poor young women enroll, compared with 1.1 percent of poor young men and 15 percent of rich young men.

Rose told Times Higher Education that “wide inequalities will remain” until standards of primary and secondary schooling are significantly improved.

“Despite recent expansion in higher education in African countries, the evidence shows that the poorest young people in African countries are very rarely getting access,” Rose said. “As higher education expands, there is also some evidence to suggest that gaps in access to higher education between young women and men widen in these countries.

“Public spending needs to focus on the parts of the education system where inequalities begin -- in primary and secondary schooling.”

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