Inequity persists in top universities, says report

There is a significant correlation between the quality of higher education undertaken and the income of graduates ten years after graduating, a new report says. But access to the top universities is still heavily weighted in favour of students from families with a higher level of education.

The report presents difficulties for Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson who has repeatedly argued that the socially uneven recruitment to higher education institutions in Sweden has to be broken.

The Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations in Sweden, or SACO, a trade union confederation with 650,000 professional members, last week published the report entitled The Quality in Higher Education and the Future Income of the Students, written by Håkan Regnér and Linda Simonsen.

The report published the results of a study that examined the earning power of students who started studying at higher education institutions in 1997, measuring their income in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

In the study quality for each higher education institution was measured by calculating an index based on three measures for each student: the proportion of scientific staff with a doctorate, the average study results from secondary education of the other students on the same course at the institution, and the number of students per teacher.

Higher education institutions can then be compared according to a quality measure based on how many students they have with a high index.

Results of the study

The statistics showed that students of parents with no post-secondary education attended institutions with courses of a lower quality compared to students with at least one parent with higher education. This could also be due to students of parents with a lower degree of education having weaker grades from secondary school and hence fewer choices in post-secondary education with high entrance requirements.

The study found that old universities and specialised university institutions have a higher quality score on average compared to the newer universities and colleges.

Women on average have higher secondary school marks than men, and a higher frequency of passing examinations during university studies. But men on average have higher income than women, and the difference increases over time. This is partly due to men on average taking more technical education than women.

In the study, around 30% of the students had at least one parent with a post-secondary degree. Those students had better study results during secondary school and indicated higher income in 2005 and in 2011 than students whose parents had no post-secondary education, the study found.

Students with parents with a post-secondary education are more likely to complete the higher education requirements. But 38% of these students study at institutions in the 25% top quality group of higher education institutions, compared to 22% of the group with parents lacking such qualifications.

In the group of students with less-educated parents a greater proportion are women, a larger number have children and on average they sit for fewer examinations, the study found.

Uneven access

Göran Arrius, head of SACO, said the report showed that the government’s policy of continuing to expand the number of study places at higher education institutions is not sustainable.

“What is now needed is a major quality improvement,” Arrius said. “One reason for the imbalanced recruitment to higher education is that higher education policy for a long time has focused on quantity. Justice has been defined as the number of places available. Injustice in quality levels and future potential in the workforce have been ignored.

“Offering more places in higher education does not solve the uneven access to good quality provision. Resources should therefore be allocated for quality improvements so that all higher education is of high quality. But the SEK250 million [US$30 million] allocated by the higher education minister is not sufficient – billions are needed. That means increased basic funding, more teachers with a doctoral degree and higher demands for knowledge,” Arrius said.

In a joint article published in several newspapers, Hellmark Knutsson and Talla Alkurdi, spokesperson for the Social Democratic Students of Sweden, said: “Unfortunately there is a significant unequal recruitment to Swedish higher education institutions depending on the background of the parents.

“It is still [the case that] more than twice the number of students having one parent with a university education proceed to post-secondary education compared to those who have parents who have [only] completed secondary school.

“We have a responsibility to make higher education available for everybody – not only for those from a privileged background,” they said.

Minister’s response

In the major Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, Hellmark Knutsson said that the government would invest an additional SEK125 million (US$15 million) in 2015 and SEK250 million (US$30 million) in 2016 to expand the number of study places by 14,300 by 2018.

“The fact is that Sweden has lost both in quality and in number of study places in relation to our population compared to other countries. We cannot choose between investments for quality improvement and a further strengthening of the higher education sector. We need to do both,” the higher education minister said.

“Therefore the government is not only working for strengthening quality in higher education, but is also investing in approximately 14,300 new study places by 2018. Of course SEK250 million will not redress all quality challenges for higher education. But it is an important investment to mend shortcomings where the need is greatest and hence start the voyage towards a more complete higher education of high quality.

“SACO says that they want more money,” Hellmark Knutsson added. “It is important not to forget that the previous government during the eight years in power lowered the taxes with SEK140 billion [US$17 billion] and at the same time unemployment remained high. This means that we at present have very strong limits for expanding the budget.”