Ensuring higher education for the poor

Dhaka,  Fri,  22 September 2017
Published : 12 May 2017, 19:28:30

Ensuring higher education for the poor

Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled
A study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) shows that the governments across the world are struggling to keep pace with the rapidly rising demand of higher education as many families cannot afford it. The number of university level students doubled to 207 million between 2000 and 2014, revealed the new policy paper of the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report and the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) of the UNESCO. The paper sets out a series of measures to make possible higher education more equitable and affordable, including ensuring that student loan repayments do not exceed 15 per cent of their monthly incomes. Anything more threatens to leave the disadvantaged behind. 

Six specific recommendations have been given to policymakers to ease the situation for all across the world. These will also help ensure both good policy and effective implementation of higher education programmes. These are (i) keeping an eye on the target and make sure those who need help the most are getting it, (ii) guaranteeing equity and affordability in regulatory frameworks, (iii) stepping up monitoring and establishing national agencies to ensure equal opportunities, (iv) using different admissions criteria to respond to different individuals' needs, (v) establishing an agency to coordinate different forms of student aid, such as loans and grants; and (vi) limiting student loan repayments to 15 per cent of their annual income. 

Equitable and affordable higher education is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UNESCO policy paper said the demand for higher education will continue to rise in different countries and, as it does, governments across the world must respond by ensuring that all groups access affordable, quality education programmes. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, was quoted as saying in a message that "by creating and transmitting vital knowledge, skills and core values, higher education is a cornerstone for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals". 

Analysing global trends, the paper shows that only 1.0 per cent of the poorest spent more than four years in higher education, compared to 20 per cent of the richest across the world. Disadvantaged groups are also missing out; in South Africa, compared to over a half of the white people, around a sixth only of Africans and coloured people attended higher education in 2013. Similarly, in Mexico, less than 1.0 per cent of the indigenous population can attend higher education. In China, the emerging global power and second to developed United States, youths from rural areas are seven times less likely to attend universities than students from urban areas. 

Access to higher education has expanded most rapidly in wealthier countries. Compared to 74 per cent of young adults in the richest countries, only 8 per cent of them are enrolled on an average in the poorest countries including Bangladesh. The greatest gender disparities are found among the poorest countries as well. Women made up only 30 per cent of bachelor students in low-income countries in 2014. Suzanne Grant Lewis, director of the IIEP says, in certain countries with deep-rooted social inequities, affirmative action through quota or bonus systems may be necessary to expand access to underrepresented groups even if these mechanisms are controversial. 

The only UN organisation with responsibility for higher education, UNESCO advises governments to use a combination of policies aimed at helping the disadvantaged. These are (i) low tuition fees, (ii) need-based scholarships and (iii) loan repayments adjusted according to income aimed at helping families manage the costs. In countries like Bangladesh, in addition to managing costs of higher education by families, other problems are lack of social awareness and understanding of importance of higher education outside the domain of official service life. 

The absence of sufficient infrastructural facilities is also a serious hurdle to higher education in such countries. The rich countries along with other international financing agencies need to come forward to help the poor countries in this regard. The governments of the poor countries are unable to meet, on their own, the growing demand for higher education in their respective countries. 

The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education Cadre.


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