Global Inequalities in Access and Success in Higher Education

Author: Frances Sit

  • Global Inequalities in Access and Success in Higher Education


    Global Inequalities in Access and Success in Higher Education



Despite its pivotal importance, the fundamental right to higher education remains far from universal, with inequalities in access to and success in higher education observed in almost all countries around the world. This article highlights some of the key inequalities that impede equitable access and success in higher education and outlines the diverse policy initiatives implemented by governments worldwide in their attempt to tackle this global challenge. It underscores the importance of elevating this issue as a global policy priority through collaborative, data-driven, innovative and comprehensive approaches. 

Keywords: Widening Access, Higher Education, Global Inequalities, Education Opportunities

How to Cite:

Sit, F., (2024) “Global Inequalities in Access and Success in Higher Education”, New Vistas 10(1). doi:

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Published on
07 May 2024
Peer Reviewed

The fundamental right to education extends beyond the confines of primary and secondary schooling. Higher education is an integral part of this human right and its ability to advance social mobility and drive economic development has long been documented and discussed (Kimenyi 2011; Cunninghame 2017; Brown, Reay, and Vincent 2013) . Top of Form

The inclusion of higher education in the United Nations’ (2015) Sustainable Development Goals target 4.3 and its emphasis on ensuring equal access to affordable and quality higher education for all by 2030 highlights the importance of higher education to every individual around the world. Yet the right to higher education is still far from universal. The evidence available show that inequalities in higher education participation exist in around 90 percent of the countries throughout the world (Atherton, Dumangane, and Whitty 2016). Both access to higher education and the support provided to allow students to benefit from higher education remain profoundly unequal within and across countries.

This article outlines some of the key inequalities felt around the world that hinder equitable access and success in higher education, as well as the diverse policy initiatives implemented by different governments to tackle these challenges. By outlining the magnitude of this global challenge, this article seeks to highlight the urgency for the global higher education sector to work together more closely in more innovative, effective and comprehensive ways to make this issue more of a policy priority worldwide. This will allow the barriers to access to higher education to be systematically dismantled.

The Current Challenges

Inequalities develop throughout one’s life and affect individuals not just before higher education, but also during and after. Learners from disadvantaged backgrounds often face extra challenges not just in their access to higher education, but also at every stage of the student life-course (Crawford et al. 2016). Substantial literature already documents how these educational inequalities are linked to ascribed characteristics of individuals (Alon 2009; Shavit, Arum, and Gamoran 2007), but data on access and success in higher education by background characteristics is far from uniformly available across the world. For instance, less than a third of the 47 European and Asian countries covered in Atherton’s (2021) equity policy study was collecting data on the progression into/through higher education from equity target groups. Furthermore, data collected is often incomplete. Of the 37 countries covered in the European Commission’s Towards Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education in Europe report (2022) as example – only 16 collected data on disability and 14 on low socio-economic status. Still, existing data is enough to reveal certain inequality dynamics that resonate across the world.

The Wealth-based Divide

Relative to other differences in higher education participation by social/personal characteristics, socio-economic background is one of the variables most often collected at national level across the globe (Atherton, Dumangane, and Whitty 2016). Despite the long-term progress in access and success in higher education made in almost every region in the world (Buckner 2020), huge wealth-based inequalities in access have persisted within and among countries. A study by Buckner and Abdelaziz (2023) clearly highlights the clear relationship between a person’s family wealth and their likelihood of attending and completing higher education. The pair drew data from the World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), which extracts data from Demographic and Health Surveys, Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys and other nationally representative surveys. Analysing data on educational attainment in 117 countries between 2010 and 2019, they then presented the

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Figure 1. Cross-national averages of educational outcomes

by country income groups (Buckner and Abdelaziz 2023)

data according to WIDE’s wealth index quintiles and the World Bank’s country income group classification in 2023, as seen in Figure 1. The data shows that across the world a gap in access and success in higher education remains between the wealthiest and the poorest populations. Cross-nationally, wealth-based inequalities are more profound in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries, with the richest students from low-income countries 14 times more likely to go to higher education than the poorest students, compared to just 1.4 times in high-income countries. This is primarily driven by the much larger proportion of the poorest students in high-income countries attending higher education. Though this study shows that high-income countries have substantially higher participation and completion rates than middle- and low- income countries, there are signs that progress in some of these countries is slowing, stalling or even reversing. For instance, evidence in the US suggests that the gap between those who complete higher education from higher and lower income quartiles has increased over recent decades (Cahalan et al. 2022). Examples like this are all cause for concern.

An individual’s socioeconomic background can greatly impact his or her chance of accessing and succeeding in higher education, but financial resources also play a significant role in student retention and performance. Students from less well-off backgrounds often face the difficulty of securing enough money to live on while studying, and the need to work long hours alongside their studies has been found to restrict students’ education capabilities (Letseka and Pitsoe 2014). The financial burden also means that students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to drop out than their peers (Lorenzo-Quiles, Galdón-López, and Lendínez-Turón 2023).

The Gender Gap

The other variable where data is collected frequently where participation in higher education is concerned is gender. At a global level, female students in higher education outnumber male students, with institutions enrolling just 88 men for every 100 women (UNESCO IESALC, 2023a). Significant gender differences however still exist in particular disciplines. The share of female students undertaking science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees (30 percent) is 24 percentage points lower than that of female students undertaking arts, humanities and social sciences degrees (54 percent) (Bothwell et al. 2022). Men on the other hand are underrepresented in health, teaching or social sciences related subjects (Haunberger and Hadjar 2022; Block, Croft, and Schmader 2018). Women’s participation also varies significantly by region. As outlined in Figure 2 below, in 2021, the gross tertiary school enrolment for women in Sub-Saharan Africa stood at a mere 8 percent, compared to 44 percent globally and 101 percent in North America (The World Bank 2021).

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Figure 2. Gross tertiary school enrolment rate by region in 2021 (The World Bank 2021)

This data echoes Ilie and Rose (2016)’s analysis on 35 low- middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which finds that young men in those countries are more likely to gain access to higher education than young women, contrary to the global trend. Variations in gender disparities can be attributed to differential cultural norms. For instance, Sánchez and Singh (2018) find that in India, parental and children’s aspirations expressed at the age of 12 are important determinants for access, and often show gender biases that negatively affect girls. In Nepal, Witenstein and Palmer (2013) argue that education decisions are usually made by parents or husbands, hence leading to the underrepresentation of women in higher education. Again, the impact of gender goes beyond access. In England, average earnings for male graduates are around 9 percent higher than female earnings one year after graduation, and the earning gap grows substantially over their careers reaching 31 percent ten years after graduation (Bolton and Lewis 2023). The experience for women in developing countries is similar, with female graduates experiencing longer school-to-work transitions and being paid less when finding a job (Nilsson 2019). Research however has also indicated that returns to education for women in low- and middle-income countries are higher than that for men (Peet, Fink, and Fawzi 2015).

It must not be forgotten that learners who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community also face significant barriers in accessing and succeeding in higher education. For instance, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (2020), 75 percent of transgender individuals in the region are not able to complete their secondary school studies, which bars them from taking part in higher education. A study in the UK also found that one in seven trans students had to drop out of a course at university or considered doing so because of harassment or discrimination(Bachmann and Gooch 2018).

The Disability Gap

Students with disabilities is one of the most common equity groups targeted by countries around the world (Atherton 2021), and indeed this group of students faces considerable barriers in accessing and succeeding in higher education. Often, their exclusion from higher education is linked to entrenched cultural, societal and/or religious beliefs and stereotypes that assign negative values to persons with disabilities or question their right to and suitability for higher education(UNESCO IESALC, 2023). The lack of social and institutional understanding about the wide spectrum of disabilities also results in inadequate support, making life in higher education more difficult for these students. Leonard Cheshire’s Disability Data Review report in 2018 covers 35 countries and finds that average university completion rates for people with disabilities is only 4.5 percent in the age group 25 to 54 years old, compared to 7.9 percent for people without a disability (Simeu et al. 2018). Evidence in individual countries also point to the challenges experienced by these learners in other stages of the student lifecycle. For instance, data from a 2020 Germany-wide student survey reveals that students with disabilities are substantially more likely to intend to drop out of higher education compared to their peers, partly due to their lower academic integration and fewer personal resources (Rußmann, Netz, and Lörz 2023). On student progression, while overall graduate employment rates in the UK had bounced back following the pandemic, the disability employment gap had persisted, with disabled graduates reporting full-time employment levels that were at least five percentage points lower than those for graduates without a disability (Toogood 2024).

Many other social characteristics are also relevant when we consider equitable access to higher education, for instance, ethnicity, religion and age, and in recent years, some countries have gone beyond the traditional definitions of equity groups and identified other target groups to support, including refugees, carers and care experienced students, victims of sexual and gender violence and ex-offenders (Salmi 2018; 2019). The equity groups that are prioritised differ across countries and depend on specific social, economic, political and historical context. Though our discussion above has covered various regional differences, straight comparisons and direct importing of experiences may not be appropriate. A range of factors such as different funding mechanisms and philosophical approaches to higher education, can complicate the picture. Certain regions or countries also experience particular challenges that hinder their efforts in widening access. For instance, low- and middle-income countries are affected by financial and infrastructural constraints and their positioning in the global market of education (Reinders, Dekker, and Falisse 2021), and scholars in Africa and Latin America have mentioned the need to break free from colonial legacies that deepen discrimination, racism, segregation and inequity in their higher education systems (UNESCO IESALC, 2023b, 2023c).

It is also important to consider the multiple and intersectional inequalities affecting certain groups of learners and the compounding effect that may have on their chances of going to and succeeding in university. In England for instance white males eligible for free school meals are less likely to go to higher education than any other groups when analysed by gender, free school meal eligibility and broad ethnic groups (Bolton and Lewis 2023),In iNepal, the effects of gender on higher education participation are stronger for women in marginalised ethnic or caste groups (Reinders, Dekker, and Falisse 2021).

Current Policy Responses

Addressing the inequalities outlined above will require sustained policy commitment at the national, regional and global level. While many governments around the world deem higher education equity as priority (Salmi 2018), the degree of commitment in translating policy principles into concrete actions varies considerably. The All Around the World report in 2018 attempted to classify different levels of commitment into four categories: advanced, established, developing and emerging (Salmi 2018). Only 6 out of the 71 countries included in the study are categorised as having advanced policy commitment, with the consistent implementation of comprehensive equity strategies, policies, goals and targets and high degree of alignment between their equity objectives and policy instruments. Less than a third of the countries have defined concrete participation targets for equity groups, and most have just put in place the foundations of a strategy, implemented a few policies and devoted limited resources in this area. The finding echoes with the ASEM National Equity Policies in Higher Education Study in 2021 (Atherton 2021). Of the 47 Asian and European countries covered in that study, only a third have a specific strategy spelt out to promote higher education equity. Such widespread absence of strategic planning directly impacts the amount of resources available for equity promotion work, the interventions and programmes that can be put in place and the level of support disadvantaged students can receive.

In terms of actual policies implemented, many countries treat financial aid as the principal instrument in promoting higher education equity. Atherton (2021) and Salmi (2018) identify scholarships, bursaries and grants to be the most commonly used monetary instruments, followed by student loans. But beyond these traditional financial aid mechanisms are other financial instruments that have increasingly been used. Many countries are providing free public higher education, like in Argentina, Cuba and Norway, or are making tuition free for equity groups, like in Colombia (Gómez 2024; Salmi 2019). However, that indirect costs associated with higher education can still pose significant financial barriers for disadvantaged students and free higher education for all does not guarantee improvements in access or success (De Gayardon 2017; 2018). A number of countries have also provided financial incentives for higher education institutions to encourage them to be more proactive in improving access and success opportunities. Some, like India and Ireland, have earmarked grants to support equity promotion efforts undertaken by universities (Salmi 2018), and others, like Australia and South Africa, have included equity elements within the budget allocation formula(Salmi 2019).

Money is not the only barrier hindering access and success in higher education, and a growing number of countries have increased their focus on non-monetary policies to help increase opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The All Around the World report and the ASEM National Equity Policies in Higher Education Study both find preferential admission arrangements and national outreach programmes to be the most common non-monetary policies. Affirmative action programmes have long been used by countries like the United States and New Zealand to counteract the effects of inequality and discrimination. For instance, Brazil's Law of Social Quotas, which requires federal universities to allocate half of their spots to public high school graduates and vastly increase the number of students of African descent, has led to a fourfold increase in Black university students in just one decade(Meyerfeld 2023). Yet these policies have also been subject to intense criticism and debate, for instance, with the US Supreme Court striking down race-conscious admissions at universities in 2023 (Rios and Stein 2023). Outreach programmes meanwhile aim to bring together higher education institutions, schools at lower levels, employers and local organisations to deliver early intervention, support and information on academic and career opportunities to young students, so they can be informed about higher education early on and encouraged to take part. Evidence from countries like the UK, the US, Australia and Chile have shown that outreach programmes have had positive effects on students’ college readiness, educational aspirations and university enrolment (Chorcora, Bray, and Banks 2023; Herbaut and Geven 2019; Savours and Walkden 2024). Other strategies, like government support for retention programmes, the establishment of virtual universities and specialised institutions for minority groups and the creation of alternative pathways to higher education, are also observed around the world (Salmi 2018; Atherton 2021).

Actions to be Taken

As diverse as policy responses to educational disparities have been we are still facing an increasingly uphill battle in combating these inequalities. Widening access and success remains low on the global higher education agenda, as governments and higher education institutions around the world scramble to deal with economic challenges, technological disruptions, war, political instability and more. The sector is still recovering from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing inequalities and led to lower participation, more drop out, poorer degree results and a reduced likelihood of getting a job after graduation for those from equity groups (Atherton 2022). While policymakers play a critical role in advancing equitable access and success in higher education, the responsibility of addressing educational inequalities around the world cannot lie in their hands alone. The concerted efforts of higher education institutions, schools, third sector organisations, employers, researchers and the global community will be needed to make higher education equitable within and among countries. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to underscore the relevance of equitable higher education by demonstrating its intrinsic connection to contemporary policy imperatives like economic and social development. There is also an urgent need for the sector to work in more innovative and effective ways to yield better outcomes in this ever-evolving landscape.

To solve this global equity issue will require better collaboration and knowledge exchange within and among countries. Equitable access and success policies, where they exist, are often formulated in consultation with student and higher education institutions, but without the input of civil society organisations, private sector groups or international associations (Atherton 2021). Engaging these sectors helps introduce ideas and perspectives from alternative angles and may generate comprehensive and effective solutions that better respond to the challenges in hand. Working with these stakeholders can also help place the issue into the public consciousness and raise global awareness around inequalities in access and success in higher education. Needless to say, achieving lasting change will only be possible with the meaningful engagement of all stakeholders in the higher education sector, including students and people who work with them on a day-to-day basis. Partnerships and the sharing of important insights, policy developments and best practices within and across borders is also essential for capacity building and the continual improvement and innovation of widening access work. This need for global collaboration and knowledge exchange is precisely why the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) launched the World Access to Higher Education Network (WAHEN) in 2022. Through key events like the World Access to Higher Education Day and our “Addressing the Higher Education Equity Crisis” summit at the University of Oxford in September 2023, we aim to connect key stakeholders from around the world to share knowledge, forge collaborations, galvanise commitment and affect change. Since our first World Access to Higher Education Day in 2018 – held even before WAHEN’s launch – we have already engaged over one thousand organisations worldwide.

To ensure the effectiveness of widening access work all policy approaches must be data-driven and evolve with the times. With only a minority of countries collecting equitable access and success data and even fewer setting targets, there is a need to kickstart a culture of data collection, dissemination and analysis, as well as target setting, impact monitoring, measurement and evaluation. Only then is it possible to generate a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date global picture of equitable access and success in higher education. This will allow the systematic assessment of equity indicators and equity promotion policies. The sector also has no choice but to embrace technological advancements like digital learning and artificial intelligence. Making good use of these technologies can offer endless possibilities for equitable access and success in higher education. Recognising this, we at NEON for instance delivered professional training on online outreach to over a hundred practitioners in 69 institutions from 2020 to 2022 to help participants maximise the opportunities online provision presents. Universities like Georgia State University and University of Oklahoma in the US and University of Roehampton, London are already making use of AI in admissions, student engagement and career placement processes to improve access to and success in higher education (Jackson 2019;, n.d.).

To make sure no learners will fall through the cracks, the widening access sector should also better incorporate intersectionality into our research and our work. As Fernandez et al. (2023) noted, most of our current policies and interventions have focused on one isolated identity experience, such as gender, ethnicity and social class, rather than more intersectional approaches to identity. Verma (2023) is right to raise concern that this can lead to policies, programmes and practices that are too narrow in their scope. Using an intersectionality lens can help unveil and address inequalities that will remain hidden if identity aspects are just considered in isolation. Meili, Günther, and Harttgen’s (2022) attempt to measure inequalities in education in the US and 39 low- and middle-income countries exploring when gender interplays with ethnicity is a good example of how such work can be conducted. Looking into this under-researched area will allow the sector to better address the contemporary challenges of our complex world. Together, we can move closer to a world where equal access and success to higher education is not just a goal, but the norm.


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