Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Three ways a higher education system can push towards more equal opportunity

  • 11 February 2019
  • By Simon Marginson

A Guest blog kindly contributed by Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education in the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education. This blog has been taken from his response to the speaker (Chris Millward of the Office for Students) at a 4 February seminar on student access to university held at the Oxford Department of Education.

In UK and across the world we are in the middle of a long wave of higher education expansion. Countries are moving from 20-40 per cent participation in tertiary education to 50, 60, 70 per cent and beyond, with most students at degree level. South Korea, Finland and Canada are already at 90 per cent.

Every large-scale expansion is accompanied by the expectation that the regressive effects of social background have been, or will be, abolished. It is widely expected that true equality of social opportunity in education should be achieved, like one person one vote. It is seen as a quasi-natural condition, as imagined by Rousseau, so that any other outcome is in some sense corrupt.

But equality of social opportunity in education is very difficult to achieve. Even in Nordic societies in which equality and solidarity are consensual values – values as widely felt in those societies as is the British belief, in our society, in the fair and purifying effects of open competition – even in Nordic societies, there has been little improvement in social equality of access in the last thirty years despite the fact that near universal participation in tertiary education has been achieved.

It is not impossible to progress social equality in access and completion in higher education. We should expect better, absolutely. But we need to understand the obstacles. In UK and across the world, there are two limits to social equality of opportunity in higher education.

The first limit is the persistence of irreducible differences between families in the economic, social, and cultural resources that affect learning outcomes. Policy can partly compensate for economic differences between students but cannot eliminate the potency of the family in cultural capital and social networks. Families with prior social advantages are best placed to compete for those positions in higher education that offer the greatest private benefit, and best placed to translate educational achievement into career success.

For example, the UK concentrates social disadvantage on a regional basis: 36 of the 51 EU regions in the UK have per capita incomes below the EU average, an average that includes Eastern and Southern Europe. This sets us well back in establishing equality of opportunity in UK, and inevitably means that strategies to enhance access must have a strong regional dimension.

The second limit to equality of opportunity is the existence of structural forms in education that provide opportunities for private investment in family advantage – tiered unequal systems of schooling, tiered systems of higher education, financial barriers to access, differences between fields of study in their potentials for income earning and social power. Families with prior advantages do best in any form of educational competition affected by private investment of money, time, family energy, and cultural and social capital. [see also]

The effects of unequal social backgrounds are maximized when there is a single route of entry to university, one competition with one set of rules that determines all, like the Gao Kao in China. Systems of selection based on a single process or single set of criteria maximize apparent fairness, but also maximize social stratification. With the playing field uneven to begin with, over time, in successive contests, those families with prior advantages, best equipped to play the game tend to pull further away from the pack, like rich clubs in the Premier League. Unless policy or institutional practice intervenes, or there is more than one way to enter elite universities, over time those elite universities remain dominated by the upper middle class, or become even more socially exclusive, rather than less.

Given that family inequalities will persist, there are three main moves that an education system can make, in pushing towards more equal opportunity.

1)  Pluralize the points of entry and progression: create a range of different pathways, especially pathways into elite institutions. In the University of California, some students access Berkeley from the California community colleges. Those community colleges have become populated by the middle class, but are not wholly captured. Plural routes make a difference.

2) Modify the tertiary education hierarchy so that there is less at stake, socially speaking, in access to the different kinds of institution – in the UK at present this means strengthening further education, and also elevating the resources and status of the lower and middle tier universities, so that they move closer to the top universities. In the nation at present there is a consensus about the first change. There is no appetite for the second change, lifting the middle and lower tier universities, though that is equally important.

3) Modify academic selection, pushing it closer to selection on the basis of potential rather than prior achievement. We know that a strict focus on school achievement in universal examinations maximizes the effects of prior social advantage; the more so when there are independent schools which apply concentrated resources to securing student success, and those schools are populated by the more affluent families. Selection on the basis of a more even playing field means moving to contextualized admissions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.