18 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Does higher education contribute to rising inequality?

There has been an enormous increase in economic inequality in most Western countries over the past 30 years or so. In the United Kingdom the share of income taken by the top 1% has more than doubled (to 12%); in the United States it has more than tripled. Inequalities of wealth are even greater.

What has happened to personal and household incomes has been paralleled by what has happened to functional incomes. In Britain the share of gross domestic product or GDP accounted for by wages has fallen from just over 60% in 1975 to just under 50% in 2015 (the comparable US percentages are 57% and 53%). It is widely recognised that, after climate change, increased inequality is the greatest challenge now facing the Western world.

In the past, some degree of economic inequality has been justified on the basis that it provides the necessary incentives to work, study and invest. But work by international economists shows that high levels of inequality are actually detrimental to economic growth and innovation, one of the main reasons for this being the increasing gap between what different families can invest in education and training (leading in turn to more variable levels of educational attainment).

Higher levels of inequality also lead to higher levels of debt which in turn lead to greater economic instability. There is also damage to social cohesion, social mobility and social justice. But perhaps the greatest damage is to democratic politics, as the interests and views of a wealthy minority dominate the agendas of the main political parties and the media. This can already be seen clearly in the US and is beginning to happen in the UK as well.

The inequality crisis

There are many different explanations for the growth in inequality. So-called ‘market’ theories emphasise underlying structural developments such as globalisation, skill-biased technological change and financialisation (the increasingly important role played by finance in the modern economy).

By contrast, ‘institutional’ theories draw attention to the policies and decisions of individual countries and governments, and especially the neoliberal reforms of deregulation and privatisation associated with President Ronald Reagan and Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

In my new book, The Inequality Crisis: The facts and what we can do about it, I argue that increasing inequality is partly the result of these underlying structural developments and partly the result of the neoliberal reforms that exacerbated their detriments or at least enabled them. So if we are really serious about reducing or checking inequality, our starting point has to be revisiting and reversing these reforms, perhaps beginning with the labour and capital markets.

HE’s role in combating inequality

So where does higher education stand in all this?

Historically, higher education has been seen as one of the main engines of social mobility. This has indeed been one of the main reasons why higher education has attracted large amounts of both public and private investment.

But there is no denying the fact that in both Britain and America social mobility has actually been falling over the same period that higher education has been expanding.

In fact, the post-80s expansion of higher education may actually have contributed to the growth of inequality as a huge gap has opened up between people with and without college degrees.

This gap can be seen in the continuing difference in financial rewards between graduates with degrees and high school graduates, the ‘graduate premium’; in the growing geographical separation of communities with and without large concentrations of graduates, which is becoming an important issue in its own right; and in the differences in attitudes towards ‘popular reform’ in the Brexit and US presidential election votes, where it seems clear that the best indicator of whether someone will vote for a populist, anti-establishment candidate is whether they have high-school qualifications or above.

Does this mean that there is nothing higher education can do to improve matters?

There are actually three sets of things we can do.

First, we should analyse the phenomenon of rising inequality (and not just in the advanced Western societies) so that society generally can have a better understanding of its extent, causes and consequences.

In spite of the current ridiculous animus against ‘experts’ there is no substitute for this activity and no one else can undertake it.

We can show how these neoliberal policies of marketisation are creating in higher education exactly the same effects as in the larger society, with greater and greater inequalities between the institutions and the constituencies they serve as well as a wide range of other costs and detriments.

Second, we should distance ourselves from the commercial league tables and guides that use material from the rankings; we should explain the methodological problems and limitations of those rankings, the UK’s National Student Survey, (so-called) Key Information Set, and wretched Teaching Excellence Framework, and other similar devices; we should show how we use our resources to provide the best possible education for our students and how our investment in research and scholarship contributes to this and other societal goals; and we should limit our expenditure on attention-grabbing activities like marketing, advertising and branding, preferably through sector-wide agreements controlling such activities.

Finally, we should re-examine and if necessary re-direct the curriculum we offer our students. We should reject the idea that higher education is essentially a preparation for the labour market. Instead, we should be attending to the development in each student of the personal values and characteristics that will in turn produce a new generation of citizens committed to producing a fairer, happier, and more productive society.

Professor Roger Brown is the former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, UK. This is based on a presentation he is giving at a seminar being held jointly by the Society for Research into Higher Education and the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, UK, on 4 October 2017. His book, The Inequality Crisis: The facts and what we can do about it, is published by Policy Press.
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