For several decades, Roma children have been systematically discriminated against and often segregated in special schools in many Eastern European countries. As a result, the pipeline of high school graduates qualified to enter higher education has been constrained. In Hungary, however, the creation of an NGO dedicated to the promotion of educational opportunities for Roma youths has been a game changer.

The University of Western Australia is a selective university in Perth, often perceived as out of reach for aspiring students from traditionally under-represented groups. To improve the integration of incoming students, the university recently shifted from a deficit model (the idea that responsibility for inequalities do not reside with the institution but with the individual) to a more inclusive approach which relies on comprehensive student support services.*

African universities are usually not considered major players in the world of science. Yet, the renowned scientific journal, Nature, has just published the results of a ground-breaking study conducted by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Rwanda that describes a new pooled method for identifying COVID-19 at low prevalence. AIMS has been successful in attracting female students to undertake postgraduate studies in mathematics.

These encouraging stories are but three examples out of the many innovative initiatives analysed in a new book, Transforming Lives, which illustrates the life-changing impact these programmes can have.

The 31 case studies presented in the book come from 21 countries or territories in seven regions of the world. The overwhelming majority of institutions analysed are public universities, ranging from elite universities in capital cities to more open access institutions in regional cities.

The book’s case studies point to three interesting developments in the range of equity target groups that higher education institutions seek to serve.

First, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of universities – notably in South America – have started to look at mental stress as a temporary disability that deserves special attention.

Second, Indian universities are using the term ‘trailblazer’ to describe first-in-their-family students who do well during their higher education studies and then go back to their community as role models.

Third, Australian universities now consider students from families that do not use English as their first language as an equity target group.

What triggers equity initiatives?

The case studies show a continuum between top-down and bottom-up processes, including activities mandated or promoted by government, initiatives launched by university leaders or coming from individual parts of the university, and initiatives promoted by external players.

The South Asia case studies illustrate how national and-or sub-national governments have mandated affirmative action and student aid interventions for designated target groups that all higher education institutions must implement.

The Australian and New Zealand governments influence universities through a combination of national targets and financial incentives.

The Irish government has clear equity targets that encourage universities to be proactive.

Scotland makes resources available to institutions interested in decolonising their curriculum.

Many case studies analyse initiatives that came primarily from a university leader or from dedicated individuals, especially in regions where national governments are not active in promoting the equity agenda.

One of the most emblematic examples in this respect comes from the University of Santiago in Chile, where Professor Francisco Gil dedicated his professional life to finding pioneering ways of supporting students from underprivileged families through outreach, remedial and affirmative action projects.

Finally, a few of the case studies illustrate how financial support offered by foreign foundations can have a significant impact when it comes to triggering worthwhile equity promotion initiatives at the institutional level.

The Mexico case study documents how the Ford Foundation’s Pathways to Higher Education programme has encouraged and supported universities interested in starting equity projects on behalf of under-represented Indigenous communities.

In Africa, the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program has been instrumental in allowing promising young people, especially talented women, to enrol in high-quality local institutions.

Drivers of success

The availability of external resources is crucial not only when it comes to triggering equity initiatives but also as a driver of success. External resources come essentially in the form of earmarked public funding, as was the case in Finland and Queensland, or in the form of grants from foreign donors.

Australia stands out as the one nation in the world that has provided the most substantial funding over a long period of time to promote equity.

While outreach programmes are an essential component of any effort to improve access to higher education, retention is higher when there is a special focus on the students’ experience during their first year of study at university.

Many of the case studies provide strong, holistic support to at-risk students during their first university year. Providing on-campus housing is also an important part of a positive learning and living environment for students from traditionally under-represented groups.

Multi-stakeholder cooperation through alliances with external partners is another important driver of success, as revealed by the Canadian, Finnish, Irish and US experiences. Involving the Indigenous community closely was key to success in Canada and the USA.

Embedding an equity initiative that started in one corner of a higher education institution as a core activity in the entire institution raises the chances of success and long-term sustainability. Making it a shared responsibility between dedicated support units and academic staff is important.

All these factors were clearly illustrated by cases as diverse as the affirmative action programme at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil, the cooperative education scheme at the University of Limerick in Ireland and the activities in support of Indigenous students at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, for example.

Implementation challenges and mitigation measures

Any new initiative by a higher education institution is bound to encounter unexpected difficulties. Changes in leadership can bring setbacks to equity initiatives, as illustrated by the Kazakhstan case. Programmes imposed from above are more vulnerable than those that originate from within a university and are well embedded in the institutional fabric.

Universities can have a hard time implementing their equity programmes when there is a national mandate that is not sustained by sufficient public resources, as illustrated by the South Asian cases.

Several case studies confirmed the importance of having a good database to monitor progress and conducting surveys to assess the actual needs of students and the effectiveness of equity interventions. This helps to identify bottlenecks and take corrective measures in a timely fashion.

Australia and Brazil came out as the two countries with the most extensive data information system at the national level to orient and monitor equity promotion policies. Universities in several Western European countries – France and Germany, for instance – face the challenge of not being allowed to collect relevant data about students because of legal restrictions.

Another noteworthy finding is linked to the measurement of success. Progress measured such as successful graduation may not be sufficient because students from traditionally under-represented groups often find difficulties entering the labour market that graduates from well-off families do not encounter.

Prospects for sustainability and replicability

The most sustainable initiatives are those that are clearly aligned with the vision, mission and strategic plan of the university, that are fully embedded in the institutional culture and that benefit from a stable funding source that can keep the programme sustainable and even make it grow.

Working in close partnership with multiple stakeholders, both within and outside the institution, is also a strong factor in sustainability.

Several examples showed that other higher education institutions had adopted the good practices pioneered by the universities analysed in the book, notably in Germany, Ireland and Chile.

A string of pearls approach

Three success factors stand out clearly. First, no single measure is sufficient for promoting equity. The term ‘string of pearls’ aptly describes the combination of financial and non-monetary interventions necessary to address the needs of equity target groups. Second, abundant resources are essential to sustain and scale up equity initiatives. National authorities should provide public funding to support their equity agenda. At the institutional level, the diversification of funding sources can better protect universities from financial instability. Third, while many equity promotion initiatives may have been launched by visionary leaders, their embedding throughout institutions has depended on the sustained efforts of teams united around the conviction that students from under-represented groups are capable of great academic achievements.

*This post was first published as an article by University World News on 7 October 2023.


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  1. Best education Topic and i love to read this thank you for sharing.

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