Enabling equitable access

CC0 [Pexels]
CC0 [Pexels]
As academics, I believe that we have a responsibility to create opportunities for equitable access to higher education. The delivery of online, distance learning programmes at the University of Edinburgh has produced a vast increase in the number of students from Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), who otherwise would not be able to undertake study at the University. To further promote equity of access we need to ensure that adequate funding support for students is available.

Since the launch in 2007 of the online MSc in Surgical Sciences programme, delivered in partnership between the University of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, a number of trainee surgeons from LMICs have benefitted from a range of scholarships. Given the online, distance learning format of delivery, the part-time MSc programme allows students to gain a qualification in a flexible manner in conjunction with their full-time, in-the-workplace training, without having to take time-out of clinical training posts or to leave their place of residence. This has led to an increased number of women being able to access the content of the programme and to study at a time and place that suits them best. Thus, as well as the United Nations education- and health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the programme directly contributes to SDG5 (Gender Equality, eliminating gender disparity in all levels of education) (UN, 2015). Furthermore, our online approach prevents ‘brain drain’, which can occur when trainees travel abroad and fail to return (see my short video).

I remember when the first Malawian distance learning students embarked on the MSc in Surgical Sciences programme back in 2010. Malawi in sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s poorest countries, and full-fee scholarships had been secured from the Scottish Government International Development Fund and the Johnson & Johnson Citizenship Trust by Professors Dewhurst and Garden. Professor David Dewhurst had a track-record of implementing online medical education resources in Malawi, and Professor James Garden was, at that time, the Programme Director and Founder of the MSc in Surgical Sciences.

The impact in Malawi of the MSc in Surgical Sciences has been synergistic: the programme provides postgraduate education in the sciences underpinning surgery; Masters dissertation projects contribute to medical research outputs; and capacity building includes MSc graduates acting as tutors on new BSc programmes for Malawian Clinical Officers, as well as access to an international network of clinicians who teach on the programme.

Funding sustainability

Continuity of funding is vital to ensure a sustainable impact on education provision in LMICs. Our first Masters student from Malawi graduated in November 2013 (see BBC News article), and I am pleased to report that full-fee scholarships have enabled a further 23 Malawian trainees to enrol on the Masters, twelve of whom graduated between 2014 and 2017, and nine are currently on-programme.

Whilst the University offers a number of scholarship schemes, the level of demand far exceeds supply; for the Edinburgh Global Online Distance Learning Scholarship, over one-thousand applications were made in 2017/18, yet only 5 were funded. For the past two years, I have been successful in applying for external grants to provide scholarships for surgical trainees from Malawi and other LMICs, and I encourage fellow academics to explore funding streams to support student enrolment at the University. Many companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities include education – the Johnson & Johnson Citizenship Trust has funded scholarships for sixteen surgical trainees on our Masters programme – and several formal partnerships with the University have been established in recent years (e.g. Mastercard and Santander). Guidance on approaching companies regarding CSR opportunities, or indeed individual philanthropists, can be sought from the University’s Scholarships and Financial Support Team.

My tips for securing funding are, firstly, to consider potential collaborations. My initial application in 2014 to the UK Commonwealth Scholarship Commission was unsuccessful, but a subsequent bid in 2016, led by Professor Garden and crucially involving local partners in LMICs, secured funding for ten scholarships. Secondly, use of case-studies can illustrate the beneficial outcomes enabled by scholarships. Inclusion of demographic and academic performance data, alongside a series of quotes from successful students, immediately creates a compelling narrative for companies and benefactors to gauge the potential impact of their funding support. Thus, I shall leave you with a couple of quotes from two of our former scholarship recipients,

 “I have had the privilege to ask some of the things that I read in books but do not understand being explained to me. I have been given access to materials that I myself, by just studying here, would not have had access to.”

The advantages mainly are that the MSc programme offers a very good platform for discussing important issues in the surgical arena internationally. There are some issues that are different in different countries that are discussed. This widens one’s scope in surgery.”

Reference: United Nations. 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A/RES/70/1.

For more on internationalisation and widening participation, see these Teaching Matters blogs:

Paula Smith

Dr Paula Smith is a Senior Lecturer/Academic eFacilitator in the Deanery of Clinical Sciences, and teaches on the MSc in Surgical Sciences (Edinburgh Surgical Sciences Qualification) and the MSc in Clinical Trials. She has been a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy since 2004, and has recently completed the Edinburgh Teaching Award towards Senior Fellow.

One comment

  1. Dear Paula. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading your commentary. I think you make a couple of really important point about online part-time MSc programmes. In least developed / developing economies the participating student, who is already a relatively highly trained and important resource in their country, is not being removed from their job when the are participating in an online job – there will be likely no backfill while they take a full time programme. From a scholarship perspective, teaching online at a distance, can also have much greater outreach and ability to build capacity. Several students can be fully funded to undertake online programmes for the same amount it costs to fund a single student to come to Edinburgh on a scholarship covering living costs and international fees.

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