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Fairness in Access to Higher Education in a Global Perspective: Reconciling Excellence, Efficiency, and Justice

reviewed by Jonathan Z. Friedman - November 15, 2013

coverTitle: Fairness in Access to Higher Education in a Global Perspective: Reconciling Excellence, Efficiency, and Justice
Author(s): Heinz-Dieter Meyer, Edward P. St. John, Maia Chankseliani, & Lina Uribe (eds.)
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9462092281, Pages: 322, Year: 2013
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As is widely discussed among scholars, skyrocketing tuition and ruinous student debt have been hallmarks of the dramatic expansion of access to higher education worldwide in recent decades.  Aiming to jumpstart a global policy debate over this issue—the fairness of current models of higher education finance—Meyer and colleagues have assembled an important anthology.  Contributors examine national policies for higher education access in ten different countries, and the editors use these cases to draw comparative lessons and policy options that can be used worldwide.  Their goal is to provide recommendations for expanding and equalizing educational opportunities that will not jeopardize quality of instruction, nor lead higher education institutions into financial ruin.  Such policy alternatives are now pressing, they argue, as “higher education is moving from a luxury item to a necessity, yet access is still configured in traditional ways” (p. 2).   

Given the challenges higher education institutions face, with rising global competition and in many instances, reduced public funding, the task before the central authors is a formidable one.  This makes their execution all the more impressive.  Chapters in Part I outline ethical perspectives on access to higher education, and historical perspectives from the U.S. context.  In Part II, various contributors offer analyses of higher education access in nine countries, including Finland, China, Colombia, South Korea, Germany, Georgia, South Africa, Brazil, and Australia.  Part III deals with two instances of resistance, in Chile and California, where students have protested against tuition increases and neoliberal financing models.  Lessons from these comparative chapters are then drawn on in Part IV, where the authors summarize their call for global public debate, and offer their own proposals for reforming higher education access, with the objective of fairness in mind.

Readers interested in higher education in any of the case countries will find much of value in this book.  The true strength of the anthology, however, is in its cross-national and global assessments.  Amidst the spread of neoliberal thinking, it is clear that higher education access remains nationally regulated, often guided by the particularities of national histories and local cultures.  Indeed, in a chapter in Part I, Meyer explores the immense ambiguity in articulating just what a fair higher education system looks like, as different principles of access, such as affirmative action or meritocracy, tend to contradict one another.  Reviewing various ethical philosophies, he finds that none provide a clear framework for proscribing access policies free of such contradictions.  Meyer and co-authors thus conclude that policies to achieve fairness must necessarily be local, conforming and responding to local cultural conditions, such as the legacies of racial discrimination in South Africa and Brazil, or the strong cultural aversion to personal financial risk in Germany and Finland.  

Nevertheless, the central authors offer a general template of the features of just and unjust higher education systems, suggesting that these can be used to evaluate different national policies.  In their conception, admission policies that discriminate among applicants based on any kind of individual criteria, such as race, gender, or ability to pay, are unjust.  So too are policies that rely exclusively, or heavily, on standardized testing, because in many cases a majority of students do not reach the ‘cut-off’ for admissions despite intense preparation, and because testing is often relied on at the expense of other talents or merits.  They also argue that neoliberal policies that have shifted the cost of higher education from public sources to private individuals are unjust, given the differing financial backgrounds of students.  The perspective that higher education is only an individual good, they argue, ignores the substantial public gains of an educated populace, not only for economic growth, but also for the perpetuation of national culture and heritage.

While the policy recommendations offered in the book are too numerous to detail here, they follow the authors’ conviction that an older, liberal form of higher education finance, typified by the American G.I. Bill, offers a better model for equitable access than current neoliberal models.  They advocate for high levels of public finance and emphasize the importance of a robust array of needs-based grants and low- or no-tuition pathways for students, as the best mechanisms for improving equity.  They also stress the importance of institutional autonomy, rather than centralized government control, as necessary for encouraging a pluralistic system of merit to accommodate students’ varying abilities.  Overall, the authors suggest that national higher education systems need to be reoriented to work toward three goals simultaneously: excellence, fairness and efficiency.  They suggest their equal prioritization will help achieve more justice in educational opportunities.

As a whole, there is much to be lauded in this contribution.  Three areas stand out, however, as requiring further thought.  The first concerns the globalization of higher education, in terms of the cross-national flow of both students and institutions.  While the authors speak about the rise of global competition and worldwide rankings, especially as they affect elite research institutions, their recommendations for reforming higher education finance remain moored to fairly static notions of national societies as bounded entities.  Perhaps a chief motivation for retaining user-paying models of higher education, as opposed to public financing models, is because such mechanisms more readily accommodate the new realities of international student mobility.  It is much harder to justify raising public taxes to fund higher education, for example, when higher education institutions are training an increasingly transnational group of learners, whose career trajectories will take them through multiple national economies, along, what Jane Knight (2009) has termed, the “brain train.”  Disjunctures between national regulations and the increasing mobility of students thus pose a challenge to policy reforms, which necessarily are governed at the national level.  Such considerations are necessary as part of any global public debate on these issues.

Relatedly, the authors do not explore fairness in access from an international perspective, wherein international students are often charged higher tuition and fees than domestic students, and in most cases, international access is limited to those students who can afford to travel abroad.  There is also an imbalance among countries, where some, such as the U.S. and U.K., benefit from the global elite status of their universities, and ‘import’ far more students than they ‘export’ (Marginson, 2007).  As international student applications have become an important factor in the calculus of university admissions, they must also be part of any discussions of national access policies.  Indeed, it is precisely these students that are commonly perceived as a source of institutional revenue within the global, neoliberal higher education system, and for whom, as a cohort of itinerant migrants, there is little concern with fairness or justice in national policies.

Finally, most pressing for any current public debate about equitable educational opportunities is to adequately define what is problematic about the current set-up.  Many of the authors’ recommendations are oriented to creating more opportunities for entry into the middle class, as the American G.I. Bill did in the past.  However, this is not the sole problem in the current distribution of wealth and opportunities in both national and global societies.  As the gap continues to widen between individuals at the polar ends of the economic spectrum, it seems pertinent that we jumpstart a public debate not just concerning fairness in access to the middle class, but fairness in access to the increasingly narrow peaks of extreme affluence.  After all, if we are going to embark on an effort to remedy social ills, we must be sure not to set our sights too narrowly.  


Knight, J. (2009). New developments and unintended consequences: Whither though goest, internationalization? In R. Bhandari & S. Laughlin (Eds.), Higher education on the move: New developments in global mobility (pp. 113-125). New York, NY: Institute of International Education.

Marginson, S. (2007). The new higher education landscape: Public and private goods, in global/national/local settings. In S. Marginson (Ed.), Prospects of higher education: Globalization, market competition, public goods and the future of the university (pp. 29–77). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 15, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17323, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 3:30:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Jonathan Friedman
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    JONATHAN Z. FRIEDMAN is a PhD candidate in International Education in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University. His research interests include the sociologies of education, knowledge, nationalism and globalization. Currently, he is focusing on a comparative study of the policies, goals and values of globalizing universities in America and Britain.
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