Equity and Access to Higher Education in Developing Countries

Access to higher education is a topic of high interest, with direct consequences on national educational policies, the development of labor market and quality of life. Education levels have risen rapidly and impressively around the world in recent decades. Enrolment in primary schooling, an explicit global policy target in the Millennium Development Goals, is near-universal in most countries. Access to secondary schooling, while not as high, has also seen a rapid rise and also is now an international target for the Sustainable Development Goals.

A dramatic increase in demand and enrollments over the past 40 years is one of the most pressing problems experienced by higher education in developing countries. Resources, both public and private, have not kept pace with escalating enrollments and costs. Higher education is not just a matter of economics, as extensive reading of World Bank publications might lead one to think. The central point about Higher education is that unlike other forms of capital, it transcends mere economic returns.

The World Bank (1994) establishes four categories that facilitate analysis of higher education problems found in developing countries: (a) severe resource constraints,
(b) internal efficiencies,
(c) external efficiencies, and
(d) social equity.

The problems identified by the World Bank under each of these categories are representative of discussions across the literature on this subject.

With regard to resource constraints, the World Bank (1994) reports that adverse macroeconomic conditions and increased competition for scarce public funds have reduced many government's capacity to support higher education and public expenditures for higher education have fallen. Staffing problems have resulted from low salaries that cause teachers either to leave the profession or work additional jobs, which compete for the teacher’s time and often detract from the quality of education provided to their students.

Internal efficiencies include issues associated with institution size and student to teacher ratios. In some countries, rapid enrollment increases have resulted in a proliferation of uneconomically small, specialized institutions characterized by high unit costs and significant duplication in their program offerings. According to a 1986 study, the unit costs were at least 50% higher for institutions with enrollments of less than 4,000 students. There are also three other factors that increase costs per graduating student:

(a) low student to staff ratios,
(b) high dropout rates, and
(c) high course repetition rates.

In developing countries there are often significant political intervention in the affairs of universities, with much less academic freedom for staff and students of the type treasured in universities in developed countries. Problems in research output in developing countries can be traced to shortages in physical infrastructure, laboratory equipment, computers and software, learning resources including textbooks and journals.

These concerns are likely to be most relevant for middle-income developing countries. Typically, in such contexts, access to schooling has already increased rapidly, the economic structure has changed, and the demand for higher-education has also risen with rising per capita incomes.