Women closing education gap but disparity between rich and poor still a problem – Unesco
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Women closing education gap but disparity between rich and poor still a problem – Unesco

Women are now more or less equal to men with it comes to getting a university education, but the same cannot be said of poor students, ethnic minorities and indigenous groups, a new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) policy paper shows.

In most countries, females are more likely to graduate than men, with the Caribbean and Western Asian countries seeing about three times more women than men graduate from higher education.

But this advancement is shadowed somewhat by another finding: less than one percent of the poorest across the 76 countries studied complete at least four years of college. Youth from disadvantaged groups such as ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, as well as those from rural areas, are less likely to get a post-secondary education.

“Looking at the average hides a lot of important information about who that average is made up of,” Taya Owens, a research officer with UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, told Inside Higher Education.

“Even if you look at Ukraine or the United Kingdom, which are two countries that have high average attainment rates, there’s a pretty substantial disparity between the richest and the poorest.”

Unesco is the only UN agency responsible for higher education. In this policy paper titled “Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind”, the body studied higher education trends and policies in 76 countries to come up with suggestions to close the gaps found.

Wealth inequality plays a big role in a youth’s tertiary education plan.

In one of the biggest gaps shown among the countries, it was discovered only 52 percent of 25 to 29-year-olds from the richest households in the Philippines complete four years of tertiary education. Meanwhile, a mere one percent of the poorest do the same.

The gap is even bigger in Mongolia – 72 percent of the wealthiest complete four years of higher education while only three percent of the poorest do.

Across the border, China boasts a smaller rich-poor gap, but the young in its rural areas are seven times less more likely to go to university than their urban peers.

Less than one percent of indigenous Mexican youth enroll for post-secondary education, while Africans (16 percent) and “coloured” (14 percent) youths in South Africa suffer from a participation rate significantly lower than the “whites” (55 percent) and Indians (47 percent), the paper says.

The joint paper with the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) also shows there are twice the number of university-level students now (207 million) than there were in 2014. This rapid growth is said to outpace government attempts to keep up with the demand and the large gaps in access, which puts the financial burden on families who cannot afford it.

Unesco makes six recommendations to fix this via policy and implementation:

  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 the needs of different individuals
  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: It should only take up less than 15 percent of their annual income

IIEP director Suzanne Grant Lewis says:

“In certain countries with deeply 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.”

Affirmative action refers to a policy where minority groups historically subject to discrimination are given certain preferences in sectors such as education and employment.

While there is no direct and effortless solution to this problem, Taya Louise Owens, who co-authored the paper, tells Times Higher Education evidence “overwhelmingly” shows any policy targeting a specific under-represented group leads to increased access for that group.

In support, the report cites, among others, education policies in Brazil and Laos have prohibited discrimination and boost access for minorities and disadvantaged groups.

Further examples include poorer Brazilian students given bonuses on entrance exams and a 22.5 percent quota in educational institutions for students from tribes and lower castes in India.

“The key thing about affirmative action is that it looks at criteria beyond academic achievement to level the playing field,” Owens says.

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