Governments are struggling to keep pace with the fast growth of students in higher education

Higher education is a cornerstone for sustainable development, but a new paper written by the GEM Report and the International institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) at UNESCO shows this is being challenged by sheer numbers of students now entering post-secondary institutions.

Since 2000, the number of students has doubled to 207 million, and the demand for higher education is only going to continue rising. But this rapid growth is out-pacing available resources, which often results in the cost of higher education falling to households, many of whom cannot afford it. We urgently call on governments to make sure student loan repayments never rise above 15% of their monthly incomes so that further expansion does not leave the disadvantaged behind.

Analysing global trends, the new paper, Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind, shows that the fast expansion of higher education is mostly happening in countries with an expanding middle class: growth over the past 20 years has risen 7% in upper middle income countries, but only 4% in low-income countries.

But this growth isn’t benefiting everyone: Only 1% of the poorest have spent more than four years in higher education, compared to 20% of the richest.  In the most extreme cases, like the Philippines, Bolivia, Mongolia and Moldova, the richest are between forty to sixty times more likely to have completed four years of higher education than the poorest.

Other disadvantaged groups are also missing out. In in Mexico, less than 1% of the indigenous population attend higher education. Similarly, in South Africa, around a sixth of Africans and Coloureds attended higher education in 2013, compared to over a half of Whites. In China, youth from rural areas are seven times less likely to attend university than students from urban areas.

In the low income countries, there are notable gender disparities as well. Women made up only 35% of all higher education students in low-income  countries in 2014.

Globally gender disparities increase on average as you move from lower degree programmes to advanced degree ones. While more women than men enroll in higher education in the first place, they lag behind men (44%) in the most advanced degree programmes.

Insufficient funds are a key reason for the fact that some disadvantaged groups are being left behind. Governments simply can’t afford to pay for the growing number of students, and this is leaving households footing the bill. This issue will become even more salient in the future with demand for higher education rising and enrollments growing.

Across 26 countries in Europe, for example, households paid for 15% of the cost of higher education in 2011. In other high-income countries, this rose even higher: to 40% in Australia, 46% in the USA, 52% in Japan, 55% in Chile. The cost of attending higher education in China for the poorest households is 187% of their annual income. It is not a stretch to say that the cost of higher education is becoming a ball and chain for some current students and for many prospective ones in the future.

Governments have an array of policy tools to foster equity and help families afford not just tuition fees, but all the other costs of attending higher education like books, housing and transportation. These policies work hand in hand. Equity policies help students find their way to university while financial aid policies make sure they can pay for their education once enrolled. When entry into higher education is selective, such as for example through centralized examinations, disadvantaged groups often fare less well Affirmative action policies can also help level the playing field. Countries such as India and Brazil where disadvantaged groups face longstanding discrimination, have set up admission quotas for these groups. India also set up new admissions rules in engineering colleges, which helped to increase disadvantaged enrolments almost three times.

We have six specific recommendations that could help policy makers make higher education equitable and affordable for all:




  1. I find it quite a fallacious argument that is the basis for many things educational that “governments simply cannot afford to” . If that same argument was applied to the quaranteed military budget people would roll around in the aisles laughing. Yet this same assumption is trotted out for education money bucket. Governments have a one line budget so they have no problem transferring money from one bucket e.g militia to another e.g. Education if there is a will to do so.student loans are simply another tax on the poor. It’s the old argument of consumption for individual benefit or investment for the good of the economy. Governments accept the first hence students must pay. What a step forward it would be for sustainability if they actively fostered the second.

  2. Now Indian Government is struggling to make Indian education popular worldwide, so that foreign students also can take the opportunity to study in India.
    It will also helpful to Indian economic growth, but still there is a need to improve the Indian education system.

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