Students getting their exam results at the Soshanguve campus of Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa

Yesterday was World Access to Higher Education Day. (I wanted to do this post yesterday, but couldn’t, for personal reasons.) World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) is a platform to raise global awareness around inequalities in access and success in higher education (HE), and acts as a catalyst for international, regional and local action. UNESCO has recognised the importance of access to HE by making equal access to education, including university, one of its Global Goals for 2030.

I know of what you speak

This is somewhat of a personal issue for me, as I was unable to go to university when I left school, partly as a result of appallingly inept advice from my school (‘the only universities worth going to are Oxford and Cambridge’), and partly because my family had no money after my father went bankrupt running a small greengrocers shop, so I needed to go out to work instead. It was only two years later, through my mother’s insistence, and the good graces of, and a lucky encounter with, a sympathetic administrator at the London County Council in England, that I got a grant enabling me to go university. I’ve never looked back since, but I do know how hard it can be if the stars are not on your side.

The importance of equitable access

Canada does a pretty good job overall regarding access to post-secondary education. In 2019, an all-time high of 73% of Canadians aged 25 to 34 had earned a postsecondary qualification, compared with 59% in 2000, according to Statistics Canada. Compare that with Britain in 1969, when the Open University was created, when only 8 per cent of school leavers went on to university. (One reason for Canada’s high participation rate is its excellent community college system. University is not for everyone, but everyone deserves a useful and valid post-secondary experience.)

However, what about the 27% who do not go on to university or college? For some, this may be a preferred choice; for others, it may be due to discriminating circumstances. Toronto Metropolitan University’s interim provost Roberta Iannacito-Provenzano was interviewed about WAHED for the university’s newsletter. She pointed out that, like me, she was the first generation in her family to go to university (her parents were immigrants from Italy). She said ‘If post-secondary education is not the norm in your family it can be hard to start down that path on your own.’ TMU has a special program called Spanning the Gaps, that offers transitional programming and accessible pathways to those who otherwise may have not had the opportunity to experience post-secondary education.

Roberta Iannacito-Provenzano also made the important point that it is not just access, but equitable access, that’s important. ‘As a public institution, we have an obligation to be an open and transparent place that uplifts equity-deserving groups to ensure we are inclusive of diverse people, perspectives and opinions.’ She then sets out a number of initiatives that TMU is taking to make it more accessible to ‘equity-deserving’ groups.

Some governments still don’t get it

Significantly, the day before WAHED, Peter Scott, the embattled President of Athabasca University, wrote an opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal under the heading: ‘It doesn’t matter where Athabasca students, staff live; it’s what they achieve.’

First, a little background to the  article. The Alberta government has been pressing Athabasca University to locate its staff in the small town of Athabasca. The university has been resisting. As a result the government replaced the Board and is threatening to cut the university’s grant from the government. Athabasca University is the only university in Canada with fully open access – no prior qualifications needed – to anyone located in Canada.

Peter Scott in his article, said:

‘our road sees teachers working with learners wherever they may be, in urban centres or in remote and rural communities. It means accessibility, flexibility, and yes, changes which some will find disruptive and uncomfortable…..AU learners don’t care where their professors, tutors, or support staff live or work. They are connected digitally, and by a shared desire to succeed in an online, open environment. If online is good, open is truly great.’

However, open access is only equitable if the teaching equals or surpasses the quality standards of conventional universities or colleges. Requiring AU staff to work and live in a small remote town in deepest Alberta will not attract the good quality instructors it needs. It also raises a fundamental question about the purpose of the university. What is the priority: serving the needs of 2,000 townspeople; or the needs of 40,000 students?

Equity in digital learning

I have written about this several times, but equity is a serious challenge for digital learning. Even in an economically advanced country such as Canada, somewhere between 20-25% of the population have difficulties in studying digitally, for a variety of reasons, ranging from poor or no Internet access, to being too poor to afford the necessary technology, to not having an appropriate place to study.

This does not mean we should abandon digital learning, but special efforts need to be made to ensure equity of access to digital learning. This may range from loan of equipment,  widening affordable Internet access, to provision of local, digitally connected learning centres, such as libraries or schools, for digital learners in higher education. 

International equity of access

All of the above though are First World problems. The big divide in access to higher education is international, which is really the thrust of WAHED. Not only do developing countries have much lower overall levels of access to higher education, but one of the most pressing challenges is reducing the long tail of disadvantaged students failing to access tertiary education. Although everywhere it is generally students from families in the highest income groups that have most access, this is particularly acute in developing countries (UNESCO, 2020).

What can Canada do?

That raises the questions: what could or should Canada do about improving international access to higher education?

Currently the increase in international students in Canada is counter-productive. It is taking away the brightest and ablest students from their own country, and using the high fees to subsidise Canadian students’ education.

I think we could do much more to make Canadian higher education and resources available to students in poorer countries. Why not a national Canadian program to provide low cost, high quality higher education digitally to poorer countries in conjunction and collaboration with local institutions, with for instance joint degrees? Why not help train educators overseas in the development and use of local open educational resources? Where is Global Affairs on this file?


Great strides have been made in Canada to widen access to higher education. There are though still pockets of inequity. Alex Usher has made a somewhat convincing case recently that there has been no change in affordability over the last fifteen years. Nevertheless, as he points out, some students still struggle greatly financially.

Unfortunately, though, those left still struggling, around 25% of all potential students, are often the hardest to reach and to support cost-effectively. Also, not everyone needs to or should go to university – there are often other routes to a successful life. Although more needs to be done domestically to reduce inequitable access, the need is much more urgent in most developing countries. We need more discussion about Canada’s possible role internationally; certainly I find our current approach to international students morally lacking, and our strategy for supporting students in other countries sadly lacking. But as UNESCO points out, access to higher education is strongly correlated with economic development. The more prosperous the country overall, the greater the access. 

So forgive me for spending a little time thinking about equitable access to higher education. Although great progress has been made, there is still much to do.


McGuirk, K. (2022) How one TMU leader values access to education Toronto Met Today, November 16

Scott, P. (2022) It doesn’t matter where Athabasca students, staff live; it’s what they achieve, Edmonton Journal, November 15

Statistics Canada (2021) Study: Youth and Education in Canada, The Daily, 4 October

UNESCO (2020) Towards universal access to higher education: international trends Paris: UNESCO



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