Access is what we can imagine for ourselves
Wednesday, Nov. 17 marks the fourth World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED), external link, external link — a global commemoration day that acts as a catalyst to mobilize action at the local, regional, national and international levels to address inequities in access to higher education across the world. Access is critical in university contexts. When access to higher education exists, students, staff and faculty are able to both imagine themselves in university environments and find concrete avenues to succeed in academic settings.
Ryerson has been a registered supporter of WAHED since its inception in 2018. As the university’s new provost and vice-president, academic, I am pleased to reaffirm the university’s commitment to supporting and improving access to quality education for all students.
What is access? Why does it matter?
Growing up, university education was not an experience that those around me took for granted. I knew I wanted to go to university. At the same time, the actual steps to make that happen were a bit of a mystery. High school teachers and guidance counsellors communicated to me in a variety of ways that I belonged at university, and that I would likely succeed there. In the September following my graduation from high school, I was both excited and nervous when I started as a first-year university student.
My experience demonstrates that access is about the imagination: Could I see myself at university? Did others believe that I belonged there? Access is also a structural issue. Structures set out the pathways that make it possible for students to enter and then succeed in university environments. Individuals always make choices and pursue options within structural realities. In this way, institutions can prevent access and offer avenues to success.
In my own life, I could imagine university as a realistic avenue for me; as a place I might succeed. I found support, financial and otherwise: avenues to higher education were available to me. As a white student who enjoyed my classes, adults with whom I interacted at high school encouraged me to attend university. They let me know about scholarships, applications and other realities. They helped me realize that university was a place in which I belonged.
The difference a university education can make in one’s life is unparalleled. University gave me a way to hold on to my heart. I found people who cared about the same issues as me and who were asking similar questions. Education and university have the ability to open many doors for students who go on to become leaders, push boundaries, and ultimately change the world.
Higher education, access and inequity
In Canada, we are fortunate to have one of the highest percentages globally of individuals with some form of post-secondary education. In 2020, 64.39 per cent of Canadians aged 25-34 had some form of tertiary education, external link, which is approximately 1.4 times the average amongst Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, external link. The number is even higher in Ontario, with about 70 per cent of people 25-34 years of age having attained a postsecondary credential, external link.
Access to higher education remains out of reach for many individuals and communities in the world’s poorest countries. There are also inequities within Canada when it comes to access to universities. Students from low-income families, Indigenous students, students with disabilities, and students whose parents did not attend post-secondary are underrepresented in colleges and universities in Canada.
The pandemic has further magnified disparities in our society. Marginalized communities have borne the heaviest costs of the pandemic. The shift to online learning due to COVID-19 posed many challenges for students from low-income families and other minority groups. Access to higher education is arguably more important now than ever before, as underscored by this year’s WAHED theme, ‘Equitable access and success through and post the pandemic’.
Many of these students have put their education on hold. In this context, Ryerson can build on its strengths and increase its efforts to provide multiple avenues for all students to access our programs.
Access at Ryerson
At Ryerson, we strongly believe that access to education can transform lives and communities. This is why it is one of our core values and is a priority in our PDF fileAcademic Plan. In addition to the above programs and to the financial support offered through our scholarships, we have a number of programs across the university that aim to support students throughout their time at Ryerson:
Tri-Mentoring, a student mentoring initiative that eases the transition into first year;
The Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, which helps faculty members develop inclusive teaching practices that enrich the student learning experience;
The Aboriginal Foundations Program, led by Aboriginal Student Services in the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion (OVPECI) and Spanning the Gaps, designed for Aboriginal community members who seek to broaden their opportunities towards academic success;
Access Ryerson, a university-wide initiative led by the OVPECI works to remove barriers to the full participation of all community members with disabilities; and
Spanning the Gaps, which offers programs to expand educational opportunities and build educational capacity across communities in the Greater Toronto Area.
Today’s issue of Ryerson Today is dedicated to WAHED. I encourage you to read through the other stories that highlight how different community members have overcome challenges and obstacles to succeed on their pathways to higher education, and to achieve their goals.
Access is about equity. Universities offer a place to both name what is wrong in our world and to imagine a different and more equitable way forward. I know that students from a range of backgrounds and life experiences have found their way to Ryerson and have succeeded. This is a reality of which we can all be proud. At the same time, I encourage us to keep building on these successes. In this way, Ryerson can continue to be a place where individuals from a range of backgrounds and communities know that they belong, and where they experience success.
Provost and Vice-President, Academic