Inequalities in higher education in low‐ and middle‐income countries: A scoping review of the literature

Higher education is regarded as a key instrument to enhance socioeconomic mobility and reduce inequalities. Recent literature reviews have examined inequalities in the higher education systems of high‐income countries, but less is known about the situation in low‐ and middle‐income countries, where higher education is expanding fast. This article reviews the academic literature on higher education in low‐ and middle‐income countries using a research framework inspired by social justice and capability approaches. It considers the financial, socio‐cultural, human, and political resource domains on which people draw, and how they relate to access, participation, and outcomes in higher education.

The review highlights key elements for policy‐makers and researchers: (1) the financial lens alone is insufficient to understand and tackle inequalities, since these are also shaped by human and other non‐financial factors; (2) socio‐cultural constructs are central in explaining unequal outcomes; and (3) inequalities develop throughout one’s life and need to be considered during, but also before and after higher education. The scope of inequalities is wide, and the literature offers a few ideas for short‐term fixes such as part‐time and online education.

Inclusive policy frameworks for higher education should include explicit goals related to (in)equality, which are best measured in terms of the extent to which certain actions or choices are feasible for all. Policies in these frameworks, we argue, should go beyond providing financial support, and also address socio‐cultural and human resource constraints and challenges in retention, performance, and labour market outcomes. Finally, they should consider relevant contextual determinants of inequalities.

This article has appeared pre-print in Development Policy Review: doi:10.1111/dpr.12535. The article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record.

Also read the blog Higher education and inequality in Ethiopia: The effects of COVID-19, that was written in the context of this paper.

Author(s) / editor(s)

Simone Reinders, Marleen Dekker, Jean‐Benoît Falisse

About the author(s) / editor(s)

Simone Reinders is a guest researcher at the ASCL.

Marleen Dekker is Professor of Inclusive Development in Africa at the ASCL, Leiden University.

Jean‐Benoît Falisse is Lecturer in African Studies and International Development at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh.

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