Global Access Map Could Reshape University Rankings

Times Higher Education, September 29, 2016 | Go to article overview

Global Access Map Could Reshape University Rankings


Study highlights difficulty of collecting comparable data on social mobility. Chris Havergal reports

The release of a university league table is always followed by questions about why an institution's commitment to social mobility cannot play some part in determining its position.

Last week's Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-17 were no exception, with the top spots being dominated by institutions that struggle to shake off perceptions that they are elitist: in the UK, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and, in the US, the likes of Harvard and Stanford.

There are some who would argue that a university cannot be described as "world class" if it does not have access at the heart of its mission.

But is it really possible to compare global universities' performance on widening participation when they operate in countries that vary so much in terms of their economic backdrop, their social divisions and their ethnic make-up?

This is the question explored by a report released this week at the THE World Academic Summit, being held at the University of California, Berkeley.

The study, Charting Equity in Higher Education: Drawing the Global Access Map, supported by Australia's University of Newcastle and education multinational Pearson, finds that what data there are suggest that inequalities in access to higher education are "pervasive" worldwide. For example, a recent index produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) found that men were more likely to go to university than women in 58 countries, while women were over-represented in 114.

Beyond gender, however, while data collected by the likes of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank as well as by individual countries do indicate widespread inequality of access according to social background, the report finds that this information is much patchier, and is often based on very different definitions of what constitutes disadvantage.

Thirty-six of the 50 countries examined in more detail for the report collected data on students' socio-economic background, but this could be measured according to family income, parental occupation, the neighbourhood that a student lives in, or any number of other factors.

Twenty-nine collected information on students' ethnicity, with this being the major access concern in South Africa; but what constitutes an ethnic minority can vary by nation and, in a country that has been stricken by ethnic divides such as Rwanda, even asking such questions of undergraduates would be against government practice. …

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