Leaving no-one behind: boosting access, equity and social cohesion through higher education

DHG 2019 Group Photo
Annabel Boud

Annabel Boud is the Programme Manager (Policy) for the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission at the ACU and a doctoral student at the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, UK.

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Employability is not about – or limited to – employment. It is about a person having the mindset, potential, attributes, skills, purpose, ability and agility to define their path and create their own future’ – Jonathan Harle speaking on the Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) programme at the 10th DHG Forum.

On the 21 and 22 November, the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), the British Council and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK (CSC) hosted the 10th Donor Harmonisation Group Forum (DHG) in London. The DHG is an informal network of European agencies that administer aid-funded capacity building programmes in education. The DHG brings these partners together in the spirit of the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness to support each other in improving the quality of aid and its impact.

The theme of this year’s DHG was ‘Leaving No-one Behind: The role of Higher Education and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in Access, Equity and Social Cohesion’. The hosting partners, with the organising committee from NUFFIC, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education and Diku, the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education, were keen to explore this issue in light of the contribution that higher and tertiary education makes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to SDG4 specifically with its focus on equity, access and quality.

In considering access to higher education there are taken to be two main areas of concern. With demand outstripping supply in many countries, particularly low-income countries, not everyone that wishes to, and is qualified, is able to enter higher education. UNESCO has reported that Gross Tertiary Enrolment Rate (GTER) in North America and Europe is now at 77% while in sub-Saharan Africa it is 9% – and higher education systems are struggling to cope with demand. The second area of concern is the equity of access to higher education. 20% of the world’s richest 25 to 29-year-olds are completing four years of higher education, while less than 1% of the poorest can do so. The CSC is dedicated to addressing both of these issues within our remit as the UK government’s aid-funded scholarship programme led by international development objectives. Commonwealth Scholarships have an important capacity building role in higher education systems with many of our alumni returning to their home countries to work as academics, strengthening these systems and contributing to their sustainability. As set out in our current strategy, the CSC is also focussing on investing in ensuring that our scholarships are more equitably shared among individuals who are able to benefit from them, regardless of background or identity.

For the CSC, the DHG Forum was an opportunity to share our learning from the work we have been doing following our Commitment at the 2018 Global Disability Summit. We’re proud that in 2019 we have a seven-fold increase in the number of Commonwealth Scholars with disabilities. This has been achieved in partnership with organisations including the Leonard Cheshire Global Alliance, the Pacific Disability Forum and Disability Rights UK. Our approach to supporting students with disabilities recognises specific barriers that exist in accessing international mobility opportunities like Commonwealth Scholarships, in being supported while studying internationally to ensure that an individual can make the most of their potential and opportunity, and on reintegration and leveraging experience to impact development at local, national and international levels. We found at DHG, as expected, that many of our colleagues were grappling with the same issues. We were able to demonstrate what has worked particularly well for the CSC: partnering with Disabled Peoples Organisations in home and host country, having specific allowances to support disabled scholars to alleviate the financial burdens in their personal lives and having an organisation-wide approach where, for example, all members of the CSC Secretariat and the CSC’s Commissioners undertook training to better understand the social model of disability and our rights-based responsibility to ensure all of our scholars and applicants have the necessary support to succeed.

Another theme throughout DHG was access to education for at risk, conflict affected, asylum seeker and refugee students and academics. We heard from the British Council on their continued efforts to support refugee access to education, from King’s College London on their Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) project and from CARA on their Scholars at Risk programme. This area of work is a focus for the ACU. Early in 2019 we hosted a partner symposium at the University of Edinburgh on Extending the welcome: developing long-term solutions to supporting refugees and at-risk scholars and this week we will be celebrating World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) with the event 'Journeys to Belonging: what role for higher education?' where we will examine the role universities play in supporting refugees and displaced people.

We will also be supporting WAHED at the Global Summit hosted at the University of Edinburgh by the UK’s National Equal Opportunity Network (NEON). This summit will be highlighting disability and the inclusion of refugees in higher education and will feature the voices of two scholars from the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program and the Commonwealth Scholarship programme, who will be reflecting on their experience in accessing higher education from a personal perspective.

The inclusion of students that are engaged and passionate about their futures and want to play an active role in shaping them is a key tenet of the work that we do at the ACU and the CSC and we’re optimistic that through our collaborative networks throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, and fora like DHG and WAHED we will continue to be able to promote higher education in allowing individuals to develop their ‘mindset, potential, attributes, skills, purpose, ability and agility to define their path and create their own future’.