Using Chile as an example, Malik Fercovic extends the widening access debate on first-in-family students in elite universities to the Global South
In the Global North, a lively debate unfolds around the inclusion and diversity of first-in-family students at elite universities (see sidebar). But what do we know about this topic and the specific challenges they pose to elite universities across the globe? Although there are still vast gaps within and across societies, particularly in terms of institutional quality, access to higher education has become more diversified worldwide. The trend towards rapid growth in higher education, which now reaches one-third of the age cohort and is increasing at an unparalleled rate has spread to most middle-income and some low-income countries in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. To be sure, this expansion of higher education is largely tied to the active set of policies implemented by states to galvanise its massification in the Global South. But this is also connected to deliberate endeavours to open previously closed doors to minorities, especially in elite universities which have remained the least inclusive and diverse so far.
Latin America, one of the most unequal regions in the world, remains strikingly under-researched in this crucial respect. In the region, however, the number of students in higher education has almost doubled since 2000. Against this backdrop, Chile can be considered as a paradigmatic case of a middle-income country in the Global South experiencing a swift massification of its higher education system. Unlike the massification of tertiary education in the Global North in the 1960s, the roots of this process in Chile lay in the reforms initiated in the early 1980s by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Redesigned under the guidance of the monetarist doctrines of the Chicago School and anticipating institutional developments later applied across the globe, higher education became increasingly organised around the market, privatisation, and competition. This spurred a swift expansion of a mass higher education system in the ensuing decades, but one in which families pay high tuition fees in both public and private institutions. Thus, between 1990 and 2015, the overall enrolment in higher education virtually increased fivefold, reaching 1,150,000 students in a country of 17 million inhabitants.
The picture in the Global North
As universities become more diverse, the issue of first-in-family students in higher education has been tackled by burgeoning academic research, particularly in the US, the UK, and France. In a recent report published by The Higher Education Policy Institute, Harriet Coombs questions first-in-family students as a suitable concept, both to understand the heterogeneous experiences of first-generation students within higher education and as a pointer for widening participation activities. More specifically, Coombs draws our attention to what is happening to first-in-family students at elite universities in the UK and recommends policies to better address outcomes – including the use of a wider range of criteria for admissions, delivering outreach for parents of disadvantaged students, and providing mentorship to ease their integration. Following in the footsteps of Anthony Jack’s The Privileged Poor, the heart of this debate thus touches the central question about inclusion and diversity beyond access.
this enlargement of higher education has crystallised in what Pierre Merle famously called segregated democratisation
Yet if access has certainly become more equitable across the Chilean higher education system in recent decades, this has patently not meant better educational opportunities for all. Indeed, greater access to tertiary education has been largely concentrated on the lower-middle and lower class students attending low quality and less prestigious institutions, but not in the handful of elite universities which remain the main channels of both class reproduction at the top and provide more effective opportunities of upward mobility. As elsewhere, this enlargement of higher education has crystallised in what Pierre Merle famously called segregated democratisation. Still, under mounting public pressure to diversify the composition of their student bodies, elite universities have gradually moved towards greater openness for students from non-privileged backgrounds.
In Chile, as in other Latin American countries, the restrictive opening of elite universities to first-in-family students has been shaped by two principal features. Firstly, it has been largely confined to a specific group of first-generation students: those who have demonstrated enough talent or effort. Imbued with discourses and practices of competition and innate abilities, the approach enacted by elite universities has made the ideal of meritocratic exceptionality the basis of their recruitment processes. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the enrolment of first-in-family students in elite universities has been carried out essentially without altering the culture, ethos, or teaching practices of these institutions. Historically dominated by the established elites, highly selective universities are hardly welcoming spaces for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
the enrolment of first-in-family students in elite universities has been carried out essentially without altering the culture, ethos, or teaching practices of these institutions.
Unsurprisingly, in Chile, first-in-family students have experienced higher education at elite universities chiefly as ‘strangers in paradise.’ Indeed, both their academic and social adaptation remains particularly troublesome in elite institutions where students from disadvantaged origins feel more estranged and marginalised. My own research documents how the experience class marginality at elite universities is shaped through combined and cumulative incidents of class stigmatisation and discrimination. In line with the work of Harriet Coombs and Anthony Jack (see sidebar), I also reveal how class marginality is experienced varies depending on the specific academic programme in which first-in-family students are enrolled, their gender, and the type of secondary school they attended. Thus, in Chile, as elsewhere, addressing what happens with first-in-family students after they enter elite universities remains key to better understand their diverse ways of (mis)adjustment and promote more effectively both their academic and social integration.
Elite universities in Chile have recently implemented measures to become more economically diverse by recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As these institutions have opened their doors to more first-in-family students, they have also put in place affirmative action policies, scholarships, loans, or other types of national, local, or institutional policies, to help them face university life more successfully. Among this wide array of inclusion mechanisms, many of them also applied by elite institutions in the Global North, two are particularly noteworthy. First, detecting and trying to diminish academic gaps stemming from unequal educational trajectories has proved to be a highly sensible policy. Second, actively but carefully endorsing mentorship has been another way to encourage smoother integration processes. Although policies such as thesehave shown some effectiveness in improving the admission, retention, and graduation rates for students from disadvantaged origins, they are still far from ensuring inclusion and diversity within elite universities.
this debate should not be confined to a handful of societies in the Global North.
All in all, the Chilean experience points to a wider debate on first-in-family students at elite universities in at least two main directions. Firstly, this debate should not be confined to a handful of societies in the Global North. The extent to which elite universities can effectively contribute to integrate their diverse, but highly unequal, communities is likely to be a common challenge across the globe. Secondly, this debate should include – but not be limited to – how elite universities provide access, retention, and labour opportunities for graduates of dissimilar origins. Beyond this, it remains key to tackle the organisational, historical, political, and cultural details of life in today’s elite universities and how these hamper the integration of outsiders. Here, for instance, it is crucial to identify and counter class-based biases in teachers’ expectations towards students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or to offer safe spaces for them to raise their multiple concerns while navigating campus life. More generally, promoting uncomfortable conversations about class and other inequalities, across faculty, staff, and students, would be another significant step to address the issue of inclusion and diversity beyond access.
Are elite universities, both in the Global North and South, ready to engage in this debate seriously?
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.