Last week we considered the Oxbridge entrance process, touching upon the potential barriers that might arise for students from different backgrounds. In reality, the barriers to higher education are numerous and complex, encompassing a range of interlinked social, cultural and economic factors. When combating these barriers it is important to develop and nuanced approach which recognises individual student needs and circumstances.
Perhaps the most significant barrier to higher education is economic. Many students simply cannot afford continued study and are not aware of the scholarship and bursary programs which might allow them to do so. Their income might be needed to help support the family, or, even at a young age, they might have their own family to support. Combined with this are issues of self-esteem and ambition. If nobody in your family or community has ever been to university, then it is possible that you would struggle to imagine yourself there, let alone begin to create an effective path allowing you to reach your destination. Given the nature of the economy, attending university is increasingly a financial gamble, and it’s one that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds might not be able to take.
There are cultural barriers, as parents and communities may object to their children studying certain courses, or at certain institutions, and many families still object to their children living away from home. There are also increasing non-traditional barriers (http://www.ihep.org/video/degrees-hope-redefining-access-21st-century-students-full-film), which include the struggles of mature students wanting to return to education.
It has been suggested that in Hong Kong, e-learning might be a useful tool in helping students access higher and continuing education (http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/14220/). Several local universities including City U (http://www.cityu.edu.hk/cityu/outreach/) and HKU (http://www.scifac.hku.hk/community/KE) offer outreach and knowledge exchange programs aimed at the wider community. Such initiatives might be of interest to schools and teachers who aren't already involved.
Students need to learn to see themselves in unexpected situations, this includes attending university open days and other public events. They need role models, individuals returning to their schools and communities as positive examples of what can be achieved, particularly by those from similar backgrounds. Students also need to be taught about the diversity of the university experiences. Not everybody goes to Oxford or Harvard, and law, medicine and economics are not the only degrees available. Higher education is far more diverse and interesting, and the validity of different courses and institutions needs to be recognised and celebrated. The person with a degree in math from Yale is not better than someone with a nursing degree from Poly U, they are just different, and their knowledge, experience and expertise are equally beneficial to our society. Barriers to higher education are varied and ingrained, but if we continue to work towards changes, as groups and individuals, the greater accessibility is an achievable goal.
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