More Students Than Ever Are Attending College, But How Can We Ensure Higher Education Leaves No One Behind?


A new paper published by the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report and the International Institute for Educational Planning at UNESCO, shows that the number of university level students doubled to 207 million between 2000 and 2014. However, the access to higher education has expanded most rapidly in wealthier countries. 

Only 8% of young adults are enrolled on average in the poorest countries, compared to 74% in the richest countries. In Mexico, for example, less than 1% of the indigenous population attend higher education. And in China, youth from rural areas are seven times less likely to attend university than students from urban areas.

The report also highlights that enrolments in private colleges and universities account for 30% of all global enrolments, rising to 50% in Latin America. But governments can’t keep pace financially with this expansion.

By 2030, UNESCO expects countries should provide equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and higher education. This new paper, Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind, sets out a series of measures to make higher education more equitable and affordable.

“The last thing we want is for higher education to be the ball and chain around students’ ankles,” said Aaron Benavot, Director of the GEM Report, an annual publication that monitors progress toward global education targets due to be achieved by 2030. And to cope with the student expansion, the paper shares six specific recommendations to make higher education equitable and affordable for all:

  1. Keep an eye on the target: Make sure those who need help the most are getting it
  2. Put it into law: Guarantee equity and affordability in regulatory frameworks
  3. Step up monitoring: Establish national agencies to ensure equal opportunities
  4. Vary admissions criteria: Use different admissions criteria to respond to different individuals’ needs
  5. Provide varied student aid: Establish an agency to coordinate different forms of student aid, such as loans and grants
  6. Limit student loan repayments to <15% of their annual income

“Demand for higher education is going to continue rising,” warns Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO. “Governments must respond by introducing a range of new policies that will ensure expansion doesn’t leave the marginalised behind, and that access is based on merit, not privilege.” To make this happen, countries with deeply rooted social inequities, may have to implement affirmative action through quota or bonus systems to expand access to underrepresented groups. "Even if these mechanisms are controversial,” said Suzanne Grant Lewis, director of the IIEP.