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Equity and Inclusion in Tertiary Education

Recently, I stumbled upon a dataset on tertiary (post-secondary) education globally published by World Bank on the website ‘Our world in data’ and some of the insights were shocking. The gap in tertiary education is enormous from developed to developing to underdeveloped nations. Quality tertiary education for everyone is the key driver of a nation’s prosperity and social wellbeing. It can provide a knowledgeable, skilled, employable, and productive workforce while encouraging R&D/ innovation which is important for sustainable growth and creating a more equitable society.  

Tertiary education is the career deciding step for most students. It’s the third level of education; the first two are primary and secondary. Typically, tertiary education starts after twelve years of school education and refers to all formal post-secondary education, including public and private universities, colleges, technical training institutes, and vocational schools encompassing certificates, diplomas, or academic degrees. Post that some students aspire for further education, like a master’s degree, a Ph.D., etc. but the majority aim to obtain a job and get gainfully employed at the end of tertiary education. Therefore, not only for the individuals, the quality and adoption of tertiary education determine the growth of a nation. 

There are multiple ways to look into the World Bank dataset. First, let me share the gross total enrollment in tertiary education as a percentage of the total population in the figure below. At first glance, we notice a pronounced gap between developed nations, i.e. US, UK, EU, and the developing and underdeveloped nations, like India, SE Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and most of Africa. For most of us, this is not surprising but a confirmation of what we already know. 


Now, let us see how pronounced this gap in tertiary education is between developed, developing, and underdeveloped nations. Using the same data set, I prepared the following chart for three representative countries, i.e. the US representing developed nations, India representing developing nations, and Uganda representing underdeveloped. And these gaps get widened when you factor in the population of these nations. 

There are gaps in the primary and secondary education systems as well. However, those are less pronounced compared to tertiary education. In the figure below, I plotted the gross enrollment ratio of the same three countries for secondary education, and the gap there is closing fast. Thanks to nations, UN organizations, philanthropists, EdTechs, and non-profit organizations actively working on providing primary and secondary education to every child. We need a similar proactive and focused approach for tertiary education.

For the development of the world, society, and every nation, it is imperative to close these gaps in tertiary education. And for that, the very first step is to understand the key factors that created these gaps in the first place. Equity and Inclusion (E&I) is grossly lagging in tertiary education and is the primary factor that created and continues to widen the gap in tertiary education. 

E&I is missing in tertiary education because of barriers like cost, societal expectations, and ease of access; Cost is the major factor. College education or vocational education is not cheap. Besides the tuition fee, other associated costs include travel, rent for living in a different location, etc. Most people enter tertiary education at around 18-20 years of age. At this stage, many youngsters in developing and underdeveloped nations are expected to earn money and be the bread earner rather than burning the family savings. Education can be funded, but we know that inclusion fails miserably when accessing credit.  Moreover, students and their families are worried about taking credit unless they have a clear path to repay the money. 

One way to bring inclusivity to the tertiary education system is to make it accessible, flexible, and more practical. This is an uphill task but certainly achievable. Think how much learning platforms like Udemy and Coursera have brought to the youth. Students can do courses at their pace while earning for their family, without shifting to a different city, and pay just a hundredth of the college cost. Unfortunately, these online-based education systems have yet to get the recognition they deserve. For example, most recruiters are yet to accept a Coursera certificate as proof of eligibility and even for that matter, proof of ability. 

An effective solution that can be a game-changer is a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) model where governments, academic institutions, and social, and private organizations can work together to create a hybrid model wherein students can work while they study.  After an initial formal period of education/ training, students can switch to a study plus work arrangement wherein they attend college 3 days a week and work in an organization for another 3 days. There are two advantages to this. First, students can earn while studying, thus better managing their financial requirements. Second, it will give students a better way to learn by applying the learnings in their work. If implemented in the right way, this model can provide a major boost to a nation’s workforce building to scale up production. 

At UNP, our focus area is tertiary education. We sincerely believe that with digital technologies and AI, we will be able to bring down the barriers in tertiary education and thereby drive equity and inclusion and help everyone get gainfully employed.  With a focus on better policies and execution, we can take concrete steps towards achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goal (SDG) # 8 of ‘Decent work and economic growth.



  1. Our world in data https://ourworldindata.org/
  2. Our world in data, tertiary education https://ourworldindata.org/tertiary-education
  3. World bank education statistics https://datatopics.worldbank.org/education/