As the process of defining a new set of global education targets post-2015 comes to an end, a debate has emerged around how best to monitor progress of the future development agenda. Given the emphasis on equity and quality, it is critical that target definitions and indicators are aligned to support monitoring activities.
Higher education has always been part of the global human rights framework. And yet, it was never explicitly included in previous international education agendas, including the Education for All movement. In addition, while inequalities are apparent at every level of an education system, evidence suggests that equity issues are especially salient in higher levels of formal education. This is indeed the case in countries such as Viet Nam, Indonesia and the Philippines where the bulk of wealth-related inequalities in education occur at the post-secondary level. Even if higher education is adopted as part of the new education policy agenda, it may still become one of its neglected targets.
Higher education should be treated more comprehensively
In both the Muscat Agreement and the Open Working Group targets, the focus is exclusively on access to higher education. However, inequalities in higher education are not solely a function of access; they are generated throughout the tertiary education cycle. Ideally, a target on higher education should cover access to, progress in, and completion of a higher education qualification or degree program. In addition, the expansion of higher education institutions (HEIs) often involves differentiation, reserving first-tier institutions for highly selective groups of students and then creating opportunities of diminished value for others. Thus access to higher education institutions of differing quality should be monitored in all countries. In equity terms, the issue is also the extent to which children from less affluent households gain access to first-tier HEIs.
Policy targets and indicators should be better aligned
The monitoring of the post-2015 education agenda should carefully consider technical and methodological aspects of the proposed indicators. For example, the Technical Advisory Group of the EFA Steering Committee proposes the gross enrolment ratio (GER) of higher education as the preferred indicator. This ratio measures the capacity of an education system but makes it difficult to deduce accurate conclusions regarding access. For tertiary education, the gross intake rate (GIR) and the maximum age specific enrolment rate (MaxASER) are better indicators to monitor access to higher education. As a supplement, the transition rate between upper-secondary and tertiary education should also be included for conditional analysis. Indicators from household surveys or censuses, such as the share of individuals aged 20 to 24 who have ever accessed tertiary education, are fit for purpose: the age group captures late entrants and young adults to be policy relevant.
Indicators to monitor equity in higher education deserve careful consideration
Each potential indicator of higher education should be examined from an equity lens. For example, from the range and the ratio, two of the most popular equity measures, completely contrasting conclusions can be derived on changes in equity over time. We suggest careful consideration of two measures of equity which, in addition to being more coherent, are easy to calculate with existing data on higher education. These are the odds ratio, widely used in sociological research, and the concentration index. Odds ratios measure inequality as a ratio of the chances of realizing a specific outcome as opposed to not realizing it. They differ from a comparison of actual levels of an outcome and use the same data as the ratio (for indicators which have an upper bound), making them conceptually more robust. The concentration index is the general case of the widely known Gini index and has been shown to provide a valid estimate of socio-economic inequalities in the distribution of a public good.
Higher education targets need conceptual clarity and better data coverage
To appropriately monitor higher education significant efforts will be needed to expand existing databases, particularly information on private HEIs. At the tertiary level privatisation trends are prominent in many countries although there is a lack of information on the extent of quality control of private HEIs. Access indicators in higher education are problematic since they rarely include reliable and consistent data on the proportion of students attending private HEIs. Improving data collection in this area may face obstacles since many private education institutions are reluctant to share their enrolment data with governments and often follow different standards for reporting statistics.
To conclude, the presence and precise formulation of a higher education target in the new sustainable development agenda has not yet concluded. Nevertheless we argue that there is a clear need for: more clearly defined policy targets, better alignment between targets and technical proposals, methodological consideration of indicators to measure equity, and more investment in countries’ statistical capacity to carefully monitor the upcoming agenda in higher education.