Growing demand for higher education puts affirmative action in the spotlight

By Michaela Martin and Alexandra Waldhorn, IIEP-UNESCO and Taya Louise Owens, GEM Report UNESCO

Affirmative action in higher education is a controversial topic for many. On the one hand, some believe strongly that it is the route to equitable access in tertiary education; others believe it can amount to unfair discrimination.

coverThe latest policy paper, released last month by the GEM Report and International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO), referring to available evidence concluded that affirmative action, in contexts of deeply rooted social inequalities, is an essential tool for building more inclusive higher education systems. Results show it is a very effective policy response to ensure that students from historically disadvantaged groups gain access to higher education.

Affirmative action is not a new tool for promoting equity in higher education. Colleges and universities first began using it to diversify admissions processes in the 1950s in India. Since then, it has spread to many institutions worldwide. This approach includes a variety of methods all designed to give preferential access to education and employment to historically socio-politically, non-dominant groups, such as underprivileged ethnic groups, cultural minorities, indigenous populations, economically disadvantaged populations or sometimes women.affirmitive action

Countries as diverse as the United States, India and Brazil look at criteria beyond academic achievement to level the playing field in post-secondary education. Some techniques establish baseline or percentage quotas for the target group. Others add on bonus points for belonging to a minority group. They work because they diversify entry requirements to recognize individual circumstances.

For example, in Brazil a 2012 law reserves half of all places in the country’s 63 federal universities for students hailing from public secondary schools, or who are of African or indigenous descent. Lower income students now receive bonuses on entrance examinations, and initial results show that students accepted under the quota rules come from family backgrounds with up to 50% less money than other students.

Enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1950, India’s quota-based programme has targeted tribes and lower castes. Under the system, 22.5% of all places in fully or partially government funded educational institutions are reserved for youth from these disadvantaged populations. In a rare move, the government extended the law in 2005 to cover private and public higher education institutions. And while the most disadvantaged castes still attend higher education in smaller proportions than other groups, an empirical review of the admissions policies in 225 Indian engineering colleges revealed that targeted enrolments have nearly tripled.

Critics argue that any change to the admissions process to benefit one set of students will exclude other eligible students, which is a form of discrimination. But recent court decisions in the United States have come back in favor of criteria-conscious admissions programmes.

Another common criticism is called academic mismatch, a claim that disadvantaged students might not be prepared academically to attend certain universities. The new policy paper reviews evidence that rejects these views. Research from Israel and the United States found that minority students perform better at elite institutions than they do at less prestigious universities. And research from Brazil points out that students that have benefitted from affirmative action perform as well in academia as the others.

10As seen in an earlier GEM Report blog, equitable access to higher education is a global problem. Only 1% of the world’s poorest have completed four years of university, compared to 20% of the richest. If this statistic remains unchanged, it will challenge the success of the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. And, as the 2016 GEM Report showed, failing on SDG4 undermines the entire 2030 SDG agenda.

Governments would do well to think about equity policies as building blocks that can help build more robust higher education systems. Affirmative action is one such policy, albeit a powerful one. Policymakers can also consider passing inclusive legislation and enforcing it, creating special universities for disadvantaged groups, and building more campuses where there are none, especially in formerly underserved geographical areas.



  1. The article discussed two sides: “On the one hand, some believe strongly that it is the route to equitable access in tertiary education; others believe it can amount to unfair discrimination.” It provides mostly evidence to support the first argument from limited examples (US, Israel, etc.). It’s also important to evaluate what kind of affirmative actions to take, in order to make them fair to all. Race and class are big factors here, but they are also limited and they may take opportunities from others who are disadvantaged and more qualified. I was told in Ethiopia, to introduce an affirmative action to increase female enrollment in higher education, they lowered the cutting point of admission exam for female students and as a result, many female students who were not prepared to study at the university level enrolled and could not perform well and eventually dropped out. And how do male students feel, who perform in the admission exam better than female students but could not enroll? I think rather than lowering the standard, it is more important to provide remedial courses or preparatory courses to help them meet the same standard as others.

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