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

Simone Reinders, Marleen Dekker*, Jean-Benoit Falisse

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

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.

The 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.

A literature search for studies explicitly discussing in‐country inequalities in higher education revealed 22 publications. Substantial knowledge gaps remain, especially regarding the political (and decision‐making) side of inequalities; the ideologies and philosophies underpinning higher education systems; and the linkages between resource domains, both micro and macro.

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.

Policy implications
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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)865-889
JournalDevelopment Policy Review
Issue number5
Early online date25 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • capability approach
  • higher education
  • inequality
  • low-income countries
  • middle-income countries
  • resource deprivation
  • socio-economic mobility
  • social justice


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