Governments are struggling to keep pace with the fast growth of students

19 April 2017

Higher education is a cornerstone for sustainable development, but a new paper written by the GEM Report and the International institute for Education Planning (IIEP) at UNESCO shows this is being challenged by sheer numbers of students now hoping to enroll. 

> See the press release

Since 2000, the number of students has doubled to 207 million, and the demand for higher education is only going to continue rising. But this growth is out-pacing available resources, which often results in the cost of higher education falling to households, many of whom cannot afford it. We urgently call on governments to make sure student loan repayments never rise above 15% of their monthly incomes so that further expansion does not leave the disadvantaged behind.

Analysing global trends, the new paper, six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind, shows that the fast expansion of higher education is mostly happening in countries with an expanding middle class: growth over the past 20 years has risen 7% in upper middle income countries, but only 4% in low-income countries.


But this growth isn’t benefitting everyone: Only 1% of the poorest have spent more than four years in higher education, compared to 20% of the richest.  In the most extreme cases, like the Philippines, the richest are fifty times more likely to have completed four years of higher education than the poorest.

Disadvantaged groups are also missing out. In in Mexico, less than 1% of the indigenous population attend higher education. Similarly, South Africa, around a sixth of Africans and Coloureds attended higher education in 2013, compared to over a half of Whites. In China, youth from rural areas are seven times less likely to attend university than students from urban areas.

In the poorer countries, there are notable gender disparities as well Women made up only 30% of bachelor students in low-income countries in 2014. 

Gender disparities also get much more visible on average across all countries as you start looking at advanced degree programmes. On average, while more women than men enroll in higher education in the first place, they lag behind men (44%) in the most advanced degree programmes.

While it doesn’t explain all of the disparities, part of the reason for some disadvantaged groups being left behind is financial; governments simply can’t afford, and will even less be so in the future with rapidly growing enrollments, to pay for the growing number of students, and this is leaving households footing the bill.

Across 26 countries in Europe, for example, households paid for 15% of the cost of higher education in 2011. In other high-income countries, this rose even higher: to 40% in Australia, 46% in the USA, 52% in Japan, 55% in Chile. The cost of attending higher education in China for the poorest households is 187% of their annual income. It is not a stretch to say that the cost of higher education is becoming a ball and chain for some students.

Governments have many policy tools to foster equity and help families afford not just tuition fees, but all the other costs of attending higher education like books, housing and transportation. These policies work hand in hand. Equity policies help students find their way to university while financial aid policies make sure they can pay for their education once enrolled. When entry into higher education is selective, such as for example through centralized examinations, disadvantaged groups often fare less well Affirmative action policies can also help level the playing field. Countries such as India and Brazil where disadvantaged groups face longstanding discrimination, have set up admission quotas for these groups. In particular, new admissions rules in Indian engineering colleges helped to increase disadvantaged enrolments almost three times, for example.

We have six specific recommendations that could help policy makers make higher education equitable and affordable for all: