The promising future of underrepresented groups’ participation in higher education in the next 20 years

Op-ed by Son Nguyen Van, Lecturer at Thuyloi University, and participant in the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education in Edinburgh, UK, from 24–27 November 2019

ASEFEdu (Editor)
Dec 20, 2019 · 5 min read
Son Nguyen Van at the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education in Edinburgh, UK

HE plays an important role in the development of the knowledge economy (Dill & Van Vught, 2010). It brings about benefits to not only every single individual participating in it but also the society in general (Atherton, Dumangane, & Whitty , 2017; Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013). History has witnessed changing trends in HE that reflected the typical features of their contemporary societies and communities. (see more at Clancy & Goastellec, 2007; Trow, 2006). I believe that future changes will be differently manifested in different contexts, countries, and regions. I will now outline what I consider to be the three major future trends. By studying them, society can prepare itself for the changes and provide better support to these groups in HE. Everyone deserves an equal chance to unlock their potential and access HE, as a way to read and change their lives.

The first trend we will see is that the number of university students from marginalized groups will increase considerably. Due to the increasing global expansion of HE systems, it is foreseen that the total number of HE students will reach 263 million in 2025 (Daniel, 2009), 300 million by 2030 (OCED, 2015) and 594.1 million by 2040 ( Calderon, 2018). To satisfy the demand of the labour force, HE will become more popular and universal. On a regional basis, underrepresented groups are from some regions such as South and West Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The numbers of higher education students in these regions in 2040 are forecasted to be 160.4 million; 257.6 million; and 21.7 million respectively. Also, the numbers of students per 100000 dwellers in 2040 are expected to increase to 7023; 10438; and 1227 respectively ( Calderon, 2018). Although the numbers compared to those of other regions are still lower, definitely more equal opportunities will be awarded to those who need and deserve them, rather than for those who are born with fortunes.

The second trend is that underrepresented groups will experience more access to high-quality HE thanks to the advancement of educational technologies. There are more and more programs using technologies to provide different modes of teaching and learning such as technology-enhanced open universities, Internet-based instructions, blended learning, and computer-assisted learning (Tremblay, Lalancette , & Roseveare, 2012). Some examples are Microsoft educational products, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and Future Learn courses. I think these modes of learning will continuously develop to meet the demanding requirements of the knowledge economy and lifelong learning principles. Moreover, there will be more generous sponsors who will offer free technological products, and the Internet will be accessible everywhere. Therefore, regardless of geographical distance and social background, these groups of students will definitely enhance their competences in the era of 4.0 industrial revolution with internet and big data, and there will be less likelihood to be left behind.

The third trend we will see is that students from marginalized groups will engage in international mobility. This is defined as “the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of tertiary education” (Knight, 2015, p. 2). Nowadays, it has become an important dimension of strategies and policies both nationally and institutionally (OCED, 2008). Notably and intriguingly, the priority will be put on the underrepresented in the forms of scholarships, exchange programs (not only for students but also teachers and scholars), grants, or funding. Therefore, those people will take up the opportunities for meeting, discussing, learning, and sharing, and become global citizens. It is believed that employers prefer students who have had global academic experience. International mobility can also facilitate the development of social capital (QS Report , 2011). This also means they will grab chances of access and success in HE. To exemplify, currently, ERASMUS programs in Europe have awarded scholarships to many international students, and they balance the number of scholarships in terms of origins, backgrounds, and so on. These students may be women or from poor countries which today are underrepresented. There are many other development scholarship programs that support the students from the disadvantaged backgrounds, and the scholarship givers are the USA, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and so on.

In conclusion, in 2040, the changes within HE for underrepresented groups will be stunning in terms of higher number of university students, supports of technological enhancement, and international mobility. Those people will get better access and better success to HE in the future. They deserve it like everyone else. However, opportunities go hand in hand with challenges which may be stringent requirements of the labour market, or global competition for jobs and better salaries. There is no way except for being well-equipped with knowledge and skills in this 21st century.


Calderon, A. J. (2018). Massification of higher education revisited. Melbourne: RMIT University.

Clancy, P., & Goastellec, G. (2007). Exploring Access and Equity in Higher Education: Policy and Performance in a Comparative Perspective. Higher Education Quarterly , 61 (2), 136–154.

Daniel, J. S. (2009). Highlights of the UNESCO Global Forum on Rankings and Accountability: Uses and Misuses. Paris.

Department for Business Innovation & Skills . (2013). The Benefits of Higher Education Participation for Individuals and Society: key findings and reports “The Quadrants”. London: BIS.

Dill , D. D., & Van Vught, F. A. (2010). National Innovation and the Academic Research Enterprise: Public Policy in Global Perspective. North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD : Johns Hopkins University Press.

Knight, J. (2015). Updated Definition of Internationalization. International Higher Education, , 33, 2–3.

OCED. (2015). How is the global talent pool changing (2013, 2030)? Education Indicators in Focus (31).

​OCED. (2008). Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society. Paris: OECD Publishing

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely by the author(s) and do not represent that of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF)​.

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