More Needs to Be Done for Fair Access to Quality Education

The dome of the Reichstag Building in Berlin (AC Almelor, Unsplash)

The dome of the Reichstag Building in Berlin (AC Almelor, Unsplash)

Global think tank staff and policy leaders met in Berlin this past March along with Chancellor Angela Merkel to develop innovative solutions to global challenges for G20 leaders to discuss. One such big idea is the need for quality education fit for the age of artificial intelligence and sustainable development. Yet, the massive university admissions scandal in the United States reminds us that quality education is now so valuable that it can attract all kinds of greed and machinations. The mastermind, William Rick Singer, along with the parents and others involved have already plead guilty. With some sentences having been announced just this past week, moving forward from the scandal the lesson is clear: we must urgently focus on fair and equal access to education alongside increased quality. Policies promoting both, not just one or the other are needed. Should the trust of citizens in universities and education collapse, societies will be in big trouble. Canada must learn from the US scandal and act before current trends go too far.

If you have money, you have an advantage. While not a novel idea, this has never been more clear than after the admissions scandal in the US. The scandal, in which 50 people were involved, accused rich elites of having bought their children’s acceptance into top universities such as Stanford, Georgetown, and Yale. While unsurprising, the scandal brings forward a problem that has become ingrained in our society: money buys you power and access to opportunities.

When money can buy this kind of influence over educational institutions, however, society should be wary and pay close attention. Education serves as a primary tool for social mobility. But if access to quality education is limited, the global world will surely see an increase in social inequality, leaving the world much worse off. 

Interestingly, at the Global Solutions Summit in Berlin this past March, the conversation about education had a different focus. The Global Solutions Summit brought together academics, think tanks, and young global change makers from all over the world to discuss pressing global issues like inequality. Panels ranged from discussions about ‘How to Save the WTO’ to ‘Achieving Universal Health Care’, all proposing potential solutions to these problems.

In the panel regarding education, the discussion centered on the idea that education was an enabler for sustainable development in an age of AI and increased automation. But rather than policy suggestions focused on increasing access, suggestions on how to increase educational quality were proposed. Panelists made the point that while the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000 were about access to education, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of 2015 are, instead, about increasing quality. The argument made was that just because access to school was being provided, this does not mean effective learning was happening. Hence, proposed policy interventions included incorporating social and emotional skills into the curriculum and strengthening STEM education. The atmosphere was one of hope, with a renewed focus on education as an enabler for social cohesion.

But with only 11 years remaining to achieve the SDGs, what is worrisome is that with a new focus on issues of quality, the institutional barriers that continue to be ingrained in our society will mean that increased educational quality will be available to only part of the population. Using wealth to buy opportunities is arguably not a problem that only affects developed countries like Canada or the US. It is a global problem derived from the structure of our institutions and society. While improving education quality is an important goal, it will do nothing to solve social inequality if there is not fair access. Without a significant change in our global capitalist values or to the education system itself, increasing the quality of education may only benefit the few. Instead of focusing on quality versus access, education policies must incorporate both in order to have a sustainable impact; education quality and access go hand-in-hand.

Action is imperative because as quality of education increases, the vested interests of elites in gaming the system will increase, too. The American university scandal has undoubtedly shown us that.

Samantha Coronel is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Washington, DC, Samantha has a BA from McGill University with a major in International Development Studies and a double minor in French Language and Marketing.