Access to higher education is a key challenge of the 21st century state. The link between higher education
and personal and socio-economic development has intensified the need for ensuring that greater
numbers of citizens have expanded access to and have been provided with quality higher education. The article seeks to explore how initiatives for increased access to higher education are experienced in India,
Brazil and South Africa. As signatories to the IBSA declaration in the spirit of South–South cooperation, the three countries have publicly declared their commitment to enhance equity by, for example,
widening access to higher education. We review the way in which the three countries have implemented key equity initiatives and draw lessons from their practice. Notions of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘efficiency’ are
used to understand the extent to which each of the individual systems is responsive to the equity agenda.
We find that while there have been notable attempts to implement the equity agenda in the quest for
making their systems more ‘socially effective’. This is countervailed by a more pervasive‘ efficiency’ doctrine, underpinned by a market-driven economic paradigm. It is concluded that the innovative
practices in each of the countries suggest important strides in the equity agenda but also that much still
remains to be done. While the article represents a starting point for the much-vaunted South-South
collaboration, tentative findings suggest that a more deliberately articulated policy framework
characterized by greater inclusion of those previously excluded is necessary in each of the countries if
significant and sustainable development is to be achieved.