Inequality in education grows

Submitted by AWL on 28 June, 2002 - 11:02

By Rhodri Evans
Making access to higher education a right, without fees, and with grants for all students; expanding public services and cutting work hours to establish jobs for all; legislating a decent, uniform minimum wage; and restoring properly-funded comprehensive schooling.

Those are the four main measures needed to bring equality of access to higher education. Margaret Hodge, the Government's minister for higher education, admitted on 24 June that "the gap has widened" between access to higher education for the well-off, and for the worse-off, but this New Labour government will introduce none of the four measures.

Estelle Morris, Hodge's chief in the Government's Department of Education, said the day before that even abolishing tuition fees - already done in Scotland - is "off the agenda" for the Government in England.

The proportion of young people going to university or polytechnic has risen from 13% in 1980 to 31% in 2000. You might expect that this increase would almost automatically have a socially equalising effect. At 31% of the age-group, higher education cannot be something reserved for the well-off. The worse-off must get at least some relative benefit.

In fact, a recent study from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics suggests that the opposite may be happening.

The LSE study does not cover the most recent years, but compares two age-groups, one born too soon for the big expansion of higher education, in 1958, and one born in 1970. Social mobility - the degree to which society is open for children of the worse-off to become better-off - was substantially lower for the 1970-born than for the 1958-born. The statistical correlation between income and parents' income was higher for the 1970-born than for the 1958-born.

Why? Initial reports of the research suggest two big factors.

First: the number of children from worse-off families who get to higher education has risen. But it has risen no faster, or scarcely faster, than the overall numbers.

So the percentage of children from the bottom 70% of households who get to higher education is about three times higher than it was in the 1970s - and the proportion from the top 30% is three times higher too. The percentage of children from better-off households who do not get to higher education, which used to be fairly large, is now quite small. The percentage of children from worse-off households who do not get there is smaller than it was, but still very large.

At the same time, better-paid jobs which can be reached without university education have become more and more rare. Result: access to better-paid jobs for the majority of children from worse-off households has been reduced.

Second: social inequality has increased. The worse-off of the 1980s, 1990s, or today are further behind the better-off than were the worse-off of the 1960s or 70s. In particular, they are more likely to suffer the especially-demoralising poverty of unemployment or irregular and insecure employment than were their counterparts of the 1960s and 70s. The "gap" to be jumped has become greater.

The New Labour Government's hype about "innovation" - code-word for fragmenting secondary schooling into a more unequal system - will do nothing to remedy this. The labour movement needs to fight for a workers' government which by reforming both education and workers' rights will open the way to real equality.

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