Opening a World of Opportunity

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Wednesday, December 13, 2023
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/anilakkus
How can schools make higher education accessible to all students, at home and abroad? A meeting of international academics addressed this complex question.
  • Access to higher education will become increasingly critical to supporting economic growth in the Global South, as well as to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Whether increased global student mobility leads to “brain drain” or “brain circulation” in developing countries depends on the availability of educational and economic opportunities.
  • To make education accessible to students in all parts of the world, schools must find ways to reach prospective learners with relevant information, connect them with funding, and give them confidence in their ability to succeed.


How can business schools define global citizenship and instill that mindset in their students? More important, how can they eliminate barriers to education that students in developing countries often face?

These complex questions inspired a session at the European Association for International Education’s 2023 annual conference held in September in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Based on the theme “Eroding the barriers to growing and nurturing true global citizens,” the session focused on not only increasing educational access for all learners, but also cultivating stronger connections between schools and students in the Global North and those in the Global South.

Presenters included Edwin van Rest, CEO and co-founder of Studyportals, a platform that helps students find education and scholarship options worldwide; and Mumbi Maria Wachira, lecturer and researcher in accounting at Strathmore Business School in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as vice chair of the Africa chapter of the Principles for Responsible Management. Wachira, van Rest, and session attendees agreed that global barriers to education are complex and will require multifaceted and collaborative solutions to overcome. Here are seven takeaways from their discussion:

1. Education Leads to Opportunities, Sustainability

Moderator Raluca Huruniuc, membership manager of AACSB, kicked off the session by highlighting several overarching global trends. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to account for more than half of global population growth through 2050, according to the United Nations’ 2022 World Population Prospects report. This trend is expected to increase the number of learners in the region, especially those seeking to study outside their home countries.

At the same time, Global South countries face high unemployment rates, inadequate infrastructure, and insufficient pathways to economic empowerment. These factors all negatively impact educational access, at a time when skills training in areas such as business and entrepreneurship will be critical to the ability of Global South countries to thrive.

In a brief poll, Huruniuc asked attendees what they thought were the biggest barriers to education for learners in this part of the world. Participants pointed to lack of funding, information, infrastructure, and learner confidence. Forty-one percent of attendees said that their schools are trying to help learners overcome these barriers by prioritizing accessible education.

In addition, 50 percent indicated that their schools are committed to helping students become true global citizens. Attendees agreed that global citizenship not only promotes understanding between people of different backgrounds, but also opens doors to opportunity. Huruniuc, Wachira, and van Rest all noted the advantages that their own international study experiences had granted them. For example, van Rest described his time studying abroad in Japan as “transformational”—in fact, it inspired his decision to co-found Studyportals to make it easier for students in all parts of the world to study abroad.

He also made the point that education is a vital part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Access to quality education isn’t just the target of SDG No. 4. It’s also the primary means for achieving SDGs related to areas such as ending poverty, increasing employability, building strong institutions, and promoting peace. In many ways, he suggested, educational access should be considered a No. 1 priority.

International study abroad, especially, can provide learners with better career prospects, strong cross-cultural friendships, and exposure to people from diverse backgrounds. It’s important, said Hurunuic, for schools to make it so “everyone can have access to the same kind of experience and world of opportunities.”

2. Higher Education Can Support ‘Brain Circulation’

Hurunuic also asked attendees which they thought was more prevalent in their countries: brain drain or brain circulation? Eighty percent believed their countries’ education policies promote brain circulation, in which, after completing study abroad experiences, the best talent returns to contribute to economic prosperity.

Van Rest noted that he knew of many graduates who had left developing countries to study but then returned later in their careers to set up new businesses and institutions. Wachira brought up the example of Akinwumi Adesina, who left Nigeria to earn his doctorate at Purdue University in the U.S. before returning to eventually become president of the African Development Bank. 

Access to quality education isn’t just the target of SDG No. 4. It’s also the primary means for achieving SDGs related to ending poverty, increasing employability, building strong institutions, and promoting peace.

Adesina now is in the position to influence policy and channel investments on the African continent. She also pointed to Patrick Awuah, who earned his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to Ghana to found and lead Ashesi University in Berekuso.

“We want people to have opportunities to go where they want and work as they would like,” Wachira said. “It’s not kind of a one-size-fits-all.” In developing countries, especially, it can be a challenge to ensure that enough students return to their home countries after their studies to support economic growth. But the more schools work together to provide and highlight opportunity, she added, the more countries will see a balanced flow of talent across their borders.

3. Curiosity Is Crucial—to a Point

Although differences exist between Global North and South countries, Wachira said, schools still can erode cultural barriers and build common frameworks. For this, she said, it’s important to have “curiosity about other people’s lived experiences.”

That said, curiosity can be taken too far. When Wachira was studying at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, she was often asked about African culture, social customs, and political context not only in Kenya, but in other countries as well. Sometimes these queries were based on unfairly broad assumptions. “People would ask me those questions from a good place,” Wachira said, “but I’m not an expert on Angola or Algeria.”

This expectation places what Wachira referred to as a “curiosity burden” on international students and academics. For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, Wachira recommended a paper by Elizabeth Tilley and Mark Kalina of ETH Zürich, “My Flight Arrives at 5 a.m. Can You Pick Me Up?” Tilley and Kalina discuss how African academics often are asked by their partners in the Global North to act as “gatekeepers” who open doors to local networks and resources.

Rather than expect international students and faculty to be standalone sources of information, Wachira said, good global citizens should instead ask questions that place the burden for acquiring knowledge more on themselves. “I really appreciate [when people] ask, ‘What resources do you think I can engage with to learn more?’”

4. Connecting With Students Is an Ongoing Challenge

According to van Rest, the scholarships now listed on Studyportals’ ScholarshipPortal now collectively amount to nearly 160 billion EUR (approximately 170.2 billion USD). But just because these scholarships are available doesn’t mean that the right students will find them. To break down this “information barrier,” Studyportals has partnered with UNESCO to create the Global Access Initiative, which connects students with information about available scholarships and relevant programs abroad. 

One attendee highlighted the difficulty of reaching students in relatively small countries—such as island nations—where access to the internet is often limited. Van Rest agreed. “Vanuatu is a small island, so it’s hard to give you a million [Studyportals] users from Vanuatu because they’re simply not there,” he said. “But it’s amazing to see from how many small little countries and territories we’re helping students get scholarships and be enrolled.”

He then pointed to recent Studyportals data that showed that the number of visitors to the website from Bangladesh and Pakistan alone is now 180 percent higher than it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even with such growth, there remains an imbalance between global demand for education and accessible supply. “We will need of all of your help,” he added, “with nonconventional methods to be able to close that gap.”

5. Many Talented Students Need a Confidence Boost

Many learners—especially those from developing nations and those who are the first in their families to go to college—might doubt their ability to succeed in higher education. Attendees suggested four ways schools could encourage these applicants to believe they can be successful scholars. First, help prospective students compile materials and recommendation letters to make their applications competitive. Second, share examples of learners from similar circumstances who have earned their degrees and achieved their career goals.

Third, support students once they arrive in the host country. As Wachira pointed out, many undergraduates from sub-Saharan Africa might never have been outside Africa—or even their home countries—before. They might need additional support finding their living arrangements, setting up bank accounts, or using Google Maps to navigate a new city.

Finally, make sure these students are reflected in the classroom materials, by incorporating knowledge generated by colleagues in Africa and elsewhere around the world. “When I was studying at the University of St. Gallen, they had quite a collection of books from African authors. I remember being impressed with that,” Wachira said.

6. ‘English-Only’ Can Be a Deterrent

Although the world considers English its universal language, not all students come from countries where it is commonly spoken. English-language programs and admissions tests can prevent many students from even applying to many schools.

Attendees also pointed out that English-only admissions tests—and their cost—can be another obstacle. To attract applicants from a wider range of backgrounds, schools might explore different requisites for admissions, such as writing samples, that still comply with governmental and accreditation requirements.

Schools can empower prospective students with greater confidence by sharing examples of learners from similar circumstances who have earned their degrees and achieved their career goals.

Van Rest pointed out that many schools in the United States have embraced the idea of holistic admissions, rather than requiring aptitude tests such as the SAT and ACT. “These are very difficult compromises,” he said. “Perhaps not as difficult as the one between brain drain and brain circulation, but certainly not a one-size-fits-all or a silver bullet.”

7. Barriers Are Not Universal

One attendee asserted that it’s important to recognize that each country presents different challenges to overcome, particularly when it comes to brain circulation. For instance, some students never return to their home countries because they would not be able to work in their fields of choice. Others might not be able to safely publish their research.

Wachira pointed out that during the 1990s, when Kenya was governed by a dictatorship, academics were under many constraints. As a result, many fled to nearby countries. Whether to stay or go in such a situation is “a very personal choice,” Wachira noted. “It’s not an easy thing at all. I don’t actually have the answers.”

However, higher education institutions can work together—through their partnerships and common initiatives—to identify those barriers and create solutions targeted to each country. All the while, they can appreciate the fact that people in different countries have different communication styles, cultural contexts, and regulatory requirements. By being patient with these differences, they still all can work toward their common goals: to make it easier for students to access higher education and to create opportunities that entice international students to return home after their experiences abroad.

Working Together to Design Solutions

Hurunuic then asked session participants to share examples of what their schools are doing to address challenges in the areas mentioned above. One attendee pointed to Raising Global Citizens at Home, a collaborative project based in the Netherlands focused on creating opportunities for students from different parts of the world to collaborate virtually on business cases related to the SDGs.

Wachira brought up Business Schools for Climate Leadership (BS4CL). This initiative includes three chapters of business schools located in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, each working on best practices for teaching students about climate change. The members of all three BS4CL chapters collaborate with schools in their regions and elsewhere in the world, to ensure that business schools play a prominent role in raising awareness and promoting action on climate change.

As an example of a partnership between institutions within the Global South, Wachira then mentioned The Education Collaborative. Based at Ashesi University, this project brings together schools in regional hubs to share and cultivate best practices related to research and teaching. The Education Collaborative highlights the fact that schools might be able to generate more relevant knowledge by working “with people who are kind of in the same situation that you are in,” Wachira said. “The solutions are here, and they can be locally crafted.”

In closing, Huruniuc noted that this session’s discussion was only a starting point to developing global solutions that expand educational access. “The higher education space is ripe with opportunities to contribute to real positive societal impact and true global citizenship,” Huruniuc said. The next step is to identify and leverage those opportunities to build a truly global market for higher education.

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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