Time to build greater equality of opportunity

A central feature of the last 15 years has been the great growth in total participation in higher education, all over the world. Between 1995 and 2012 there was rapid growth of participation in all regions except Central Asia. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, where participation remains very low, the Gross Tertiary Education Enrolment Ratio doubled in that time.

In East Asia all systems are at 60% or more, except for China. The enrolment ratio in China is 36% this year. The Gross Tertiary Education Enrolment Ratio in Beijing, Shanghai and East Coast regions already exceeds 60%, though it is much lower in Yunnan and Tibet.

So higher education has become more equitable in the sense of being much more socially inclusive. But what is the quality of the educational participation that the new participants experience, and does it lead to good jobs and upward social mobility?

Does higher education constitute a genuine social meritocracy? Or is it merely a servant of privilege? And what are the implications for East Asia of patterns of inequality in the West?

Social mobility

I have written before about the impact on higher education of the growth of inequality in countries such as the US, UK and Japan. The heyday for equality of opportunity in America, Europe and Japan came in the 1950s to 1970s.

Economic growth was high. Salaries were relatively equal. Higher education expanded rapidly but all graduates had career jobs. A new ‘patrimonial’ (property holding) middle class emerged.

This was the time when many of the key ideas emerged that shape our understanding of higher education, particularly the notion of society-wide equality of opportunity embodied in the California Master Plan for Higher Education, and human capital theory in economics.

Human capital theory was based on the meritocratic assumption, typical of the idealism of the post World War II years, that the quality of learning determined marginal productivity, and marginal productivity determined wages.

This neglected the shaping effects of industrial relations in wage determination, social inequalities in access to education, and privileged social networks in the transition from higher education to the labour market.

Since the 1970s income inequality has been rising, particularly in the US. At the same time, a stratified higher education system has become more stratified, access to it has become more unequal, and inequalities in the transition to work have become more obvious.

We have seen that high labour incomes are increasingly decoupled from access to and performance in higher education. As the role of inherited wealth expands, this decoupling will increase, portending a more complete demise of equality of opportunity. Higher education will manage the US distribution in the middle but no longer provide mobility to the top.

East Asia

In East Asia higher education is rising on the crest of a great wave of social and economic transformation, just as the US was in the 1940s to 1970s. The US built its university and science system in those years. Now is the moment to build permanent strength in East Asian higher education, so it keeps flourishing when the rising times are over.

Does the flourishing of higher education in East Asia mean that these countries are achieving greater equality of opportunity? There are a number of factors to take into account.

Firstly, as indicated by PISA (Programme for International Student Achievement), in East Asia student achievement at school is not only very high in world terms, it is evenly distributed, though this varies by system, with little low achievement.

This is a good basis for equality of opportunity in higher education. However, higher education systems are steeply stratified in value, with the partial exception of Taiwan and Hong Kong. This institutional stratification is a mechanism for social re-stratification, unless policy ensures the top World-Class Universities are not dominated by wealthy families.

Secondly, and this is very important, current East Asian societies are open societies, with the exception of Japan which has a different history, modernising at an earlier time. Japan is like a West European country in its income distribution and the growing role of inheritance.

But in the rest of East Asia and Singapore there is much more space for upward mobility than in the USA and UK and more than in Western Europe – whether Gini coefficients are low as in Korea or high as in China (although Gini coefficients are a crude average and a poor guide to societies in transition).

In East Asia, study and work play a larger role in allocating incomes and social status than does inherited wealth, especially in China. Just as in the US in the 1950s to 1970s, economic growth is driving the expansion of total opportunities, especially in Singapore, China and Korea. The elite is growing in total size. Below the elite, the middle class has grown very rapidly in Korea, China and Taiwan.

In China middle-class growth is concurrent with mobility from the countryside to the city, and rapid urbanisation. The new middle classes want higher education for their children. They are achieving it. Higher education provides a system for distributing the rewards. It has a larger role in forming society than in today’s USA.

It is not the driver of the growth of opportunities, or of the growth of the middle class. In China this began at least 15 years before enrolments took off in the late 1990s. However, higher education does play a role in mobility – it can provide more or less equality of opportunity, depending on how it is organised.

Falling equality of opportunity in China

Research suggests that in China, while total opportunities are growing, equal opportunity is reduced by the systemic and social stratification of participation, which locks into growing inequality in the reward structure of the labour market.

Attendance at an elite institution in China enhances social status and income, with the status effect confirmed more often by research than is the income effect. Research suggests that there is a strong income effect associated with attending a top 100 university irrespective of student ability, major, location of the higher education institution, and family. So the question of social access to elite institutions is crucial, as in the US.

A recent study by Po Yang from Peking University shows that government financial aid strengthens the position of the elite universities, but favours low-income students within them. The limitation is that not enough poor students reach the elite institutions.

Research also identifies historical features of China that diverge from American-style class reproduction. The Cultural Revolution interrupted the transfer of wealth, status and educational advantage to the next generation. This further enhanced the openness of Chinese society after 1978.

The urban-rural divide is a primary driver of inequality, it stretches the Gini coefficient, but urbanisation is progressively absorbing the rural population into the growing middle class, a process of ‘encircling the countryside from the cities’.

At the same time Po Yang notes that financial aid strongly favours children of Party members. The party-state provides another structure for the stratification of opportunity, distinct from family wealth or parents’ education, though over time it may tend to converge with them. This creates social closure for non-party members and enhances social openness for party members.

Indeed status, especially political status, may be qualitatively more important in China, compared to income. Party networks open doorways, including opportunities for new income. This is not social equality; it is plurality in the means of social mobility.

Towards greater equality

So how can higher education in East Asia foment greater social equality? What do the present patterns tell us?

First, the great differences between countries in the map of social and economic inequality, and in the shape and role of higher education, underlines the continuing importance of the national part of global, national and local higher education. We are all visible to each other, we face common issues and we borrow from each other, but states and societies continue to be diverse.

Second, the hardest question to answer is about the potential of higher education to make a difference. I am convinced that the potential of higher education to enhance stratification and inequality, or social equality, varies by historical time, and between the different country systems.

The potential of higher education to enhance equality is greater when external conditions are right, as they are now in East Asia (though not in the USA and UK), when total opportunities are growing and the class structure is loose.

The potential of higher education to enhance equality is also greater when there is public consensus on taxation and redistribution; and when the state vigorously uses education to enhance social equality and-or mobility, for example, by lifting the quality and standing of the public middle-tier institutions so that more people access higher value higher education at low cost.

But I don’t think that higher education creates social structures, except its own structures. The main drivers of social equality or inequality are outside the sector.

World-Class Universities

Third and finally, there is the question of the relationship between elite and mass higher education, and the health of each.

We need World-Class Universities, especially in systems where research is still emerging. The formation of World-Class Universities is not a problem for social equality provided two elements are in place.

First, the rest of higher education is elevated also, as in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which have fine research universities and fine other institutions. This also happens in Korea and Taiwan.

Second, the upward transfer routes from mass higher education to elite higher education institutions must be good. Without those elements the World-Class Universities project will tend to promote institutional and social stratification.

However, the larger problem is that the World-Class Universities movement coincides with a crisis in the quality of mass higher education in many countries. Here the retreat of the state shows itself.

In the USA community colleges are struggling. Universal access has gone. Classes are large, expectations low, and two-year diplomas now lack zing in the labour markets. US for-profits spend public money but do not deliver. ‘Teaching-lite’ online options do not generate high value learning or degrees with substance.

In some other systems most enrolments are in private sectors of doubtful value – for example, the 25,000 small private colleges in India, with little upward mobility; the diploma mills in the Philippines; the private sector in Brazil and Indonesia. Only a few countries adequately regulate the private sector. South Korea in East Asia handles the private sector better than most countries.

But in all countries there are forms of participation that are scarcely ‘participation’ at all. This does nothing for equalised opportunity and social mobility. Mass higher education is the democratic floor of high participation systems. It cannot create equality on its own, but it is an essential part of the mix.

Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, UK. This is an edited version of a keynote speech he gave at the Third Conference of the Higher Education Research Association, or HERA, held in Taipei, Taiwan, on 21-22 May 2015.