Education and the Great Divergence

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by Julia McClure (*)
(HEC 2014-2015, Lecturer Department of History University of Warwick)

The recent debate on the reestablishment of grammar schools raises interesting questions and should prompt us to reflect upon the link between education and inequality. We live in an age of inequality, not only between nations, the West and the rest, but also within nations. It is commonly held that education is a mechanism for reducing global inequality, and studies have shown that improving education can help close the gap between rich and poor within a nation.

However, recent economists and other analysts of inequality have observed that the potential of education to reduce inequality and increase social mobility has been declining in the ‘developed’ nation of Britain. Educational inequality still engenders social inequality in Britain, and analysts have been concerned about the widening of the gap for some time. Historically the focus has been upon primary and secondary school education, since basic linguistic and numerical literacy was essential into basic entry into the job market. Yet the link between education and inequality is increasingly complex, strained by the systemic inequality engendered by our globalized world. Here, the same concern that is given to link between inequality and education in the secondary school system needs to extend to the ongoing links between education and inequality in the higher education system.

In Britain, grammar schools had a reputation for delivering a higher standard of education than state run comprehensive schools, and thus gave children from working class backgrounds the ability to compete with the children of private schools, and to gain entry into university – something that seemed beyond the reaches of many people. In the 1960s the Robbins report advocated the expansion of access to university education, and at the same time, the tripartite system of education which had been in place to support grammar schools since 1944 declined. Grammar schools have always been a controversial topic, since they helped people from lower income backgrounds go to university, which in turn led to higher paid jobs and increased social mobility. However, they were also accused of ossifying inequality since the entry system favoured children from more middle class backgrounds, and by creaming off the ‘best’ pupils they caused the stultification of the advance of state schools and caused children’s futures to be pre-selected at a young age. It was agreed that the system should be abolished, and resources distributed more evenly across all students to give children equal opportunities and fight the ‘post-code lottery’ that had scarred the British geopolitical landscape. Grammar schools declined as access to higher education expanded. Today we have record numbers of students attending university, but is higher education the ticket to increased social mobility and improved opportunities that it once was?

One study found that half of 2015 graduates who paid £9000 in tuition fees are back living at home with their parents. Recent literature on inequality has reflected on the limitations and decline of education as a mechanism for increasing decreasing inequality; the reasons can vary according to different socio-cultural and economic contexts as well as educational policies. Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality observes that in countries where there is a certain expectation for people to go to university and a higher number of graduates, the education premium is reduced and older systems of inequality prevail as a degree is no longer the ticket to upward mobility. This causes problems in the higher education system, and reflects problems regarding inequality within society and within universities.

Firstly, from their arrival on campus students are often more worried about their job prospects after university than they are about the subjects they have come to study. The culture of achieving, and of producing measurable outputs eats in to the times and spaces for learning – a process of failure as well as attainment – and of thinking. Students are increasingly concerned, not what with what they can understand, but what their degree is worth. Such anxieties are encouraged by studies which assess the earning potential of different subjects. And who can blame students for thinking this way when the high tuition fees they are paying are more likely to bring them stress-induced mental health problems than rewarding employment? Of course, many career options are still available to graduates, but as James Ferguson, in his Give A Man A Fish, has observed, in a more globalized and more technocratic world, there are fewer jobs and increased ‘production’ is not the only pathway to inequality; he argues instead that we need to think more critically about the new politics of distribution. Ferguson is assessing the possibilities of the basic income movement, the proposal that all people should receive a basic income. This movement has provoked many debates and controversies, but it has an important issue at its core – how to redistribute wealth without necessarily increasing environmentally harmful production. It is clear that students are worried about their basic income, often holding several jobs within term time to fulfil their basic needs, while worrying how they will earn and how they will pay off their debts after university. This, as we know, is harmful both to students and society. It is also harmful to academic and intellectual culture; students need time to learn, to read, to think, and to enjoy and explore their subjects. For students from lower income backgrounds especially, universities are often not the space for these essential pursuits, and this contributes to the transformation of the intellectual climate of the campus.

The success or failure of the higher education institution as a mechanism for increasing equality and social mobility exists in dialogue with society. As previously stated, as the premium of the degree declines, other mechanisms of disaggregation of who receive the more lucrative jobs or funding grants re-emerge. Much of this comes from systemic class bias. For example, top firms have been accused of using accent bias or aggregation based on other cultural traits to determine which eligible candidates would ‘fit in’ better. Regional accents are still disadvantageous, but other aspects of social and cultural capital come to matter more – does the prospective candidate know about ‘The Arts’, or play certain sports? The result being that the status quo is maintained. We see, then, that a more holistic, long-term, and radical policy for addressing inequality is needed, which the issue of the re-introduction of grammar schools fails to address.

What role does higher education play? Left wing commentators have long lambasted the demographics of economic sectors that seem the preserve of elites – banking, law, and recently access to politics and acting have been discussed. But are higher education institutes examples of equality and social mobility?

Within the system of academia a great divergence is taking place. As was raised in last year’s UCU strike action, universities are increasingly employing workers on casualised contracts for low pay. The UCU reports that ‘46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero hours contracts to deliver teaching, and 68% of research staff in higher education are on fixed term contracts, with many more dependent on short-term funding for continued employment’. As PhD graduates who are dependent on academia as a main source of income seek to escape the precarity of hourly paid work by taking more lucrative annual contracts, some of which are entirely focused upon teaching. These people may enjoy and be committed to teaching, but unfortunately for these academics, permanent employment and research grants value research and publications, which are difficult to develop in precarious employment and full time teaching posts. Meanwhile, funding streams have been increasingly consolidated, so that fewer applicants receive more lucrative grants. The people who receive lucrative grants generate profiles which make them more attractive to employers and future funding bodies. Thus the divergence increases, with those who didn’t obtain lucrative postdoctoral positions or funding grants initially being unlikely to advance, while those who did become more eligible for subsequent research funding. Increasingly the university is a two tier world. And much of the divergence, is determined at an early stage in the academic’s career, if a little later than the 11 + of the grammar school system.

Some of the causes of this divergence within higher-education are socio-cultural (and even regional accents can still matter!) Firstly, if you are not dependent on academia as your main source of income – if you have familial or spousal support, then you have more time to devout to research and publications (as well as learning!) which do not pay in the short term, but lead to more lucrative posts and grants in the long term. Secondly, if you are from a family of academics you are more likely to understand the grants and fellowships available. As with the companies critiqued by left-wing academics, issues of socio-cultural capital are often big factors within the university world. While Oxbridge has many policies to expand its diversity at entry level, its access to resources as well as ‘brand potential’ may limit equality later, as the Oxbridge candidate has more access to resources and immediate postdoctoral funding relief in the forms of JRF, which may make the academic from a less resource rich system less competitive in the academic market place. Higher education institutions may also make their own contribution to maintaining inequality through the process of focusing grants by the way they distribute grants, which are increasingly distributed in larger packages to the fewer candidates who have had the time and space to develop worthy portfolios. Other funding bodies clearly favour the continued support of previously supported candidates, which again contributes to divergence within the system.

In conclusion, the grammar school debate may be badly framed, but it raises an important question about the link between equality and education in today’s society. In responding to this question we need to think more extensively about social policies that govern an individual’s life span, to think more critically about the subtly systems of social and cultural capital that can act against progressive access policies to maintain inequality, and to think more radically about the politics of distribution.

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows and former Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme