Cultural factors at work in social inequality in HE

Andrés Santos Sharpe, an inquisitive and friendly doctoral candidate at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, has dedicated his fledgling career to listening to the life stories of students who drop out of the institution.

If his immediate goal is to earn his PhD, his greater wish is for universities to better serve society, especially students at risk of falling through the cracks. He describes himself as part of a tradition that “links critical thinking with collective action … and with a deep impatience with the status quo”.

Santos Sharpe also is part of a new generation of researchers grappling with the latest iteration of an age-old problem: Social inequality, and what higher education might do to lessen it.

Right now, the academy seems more like part of the problem than the solution. Even as participation in higher education is rapidly expanding globally, the increasing stratification of both institutions and societies worldwide challenges the often-made claim that a college education is a sure path to upward mobility.

Figuring out how to crack that conundrum is what drew Santos Sharpe and 21 other emerging scholars – mostly graduate students at various stages of their dissertation research – to a week-long summer school in St Petersburg, Russia. As a doctoral candidate interested in understanding the influence of US higher education in a global context, I was one of them.

Over five days in June and under the tutelage of a faculty of international repute, we shared our work, discussed how to make it better, and explored how it might inform larger public policy debates.

Like Santos Sharpe, many of those of us who gathered in St Petersburg seek to improve the prospects of marginalised populations, be they Native Americans in the United States, indigenous students in Latin America or Austrians who are the first in their families to go to college.

One of us is looking at access to higher education for Roma students in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Another has found a pattern in which, over and over, working-class students in the United Kingdom blame themselves – specifically, their laziness – for failing to land an internship. Wealthier classmates, meanwhile, turn to family connections.

Other presenters focused on the social, political, cultural and economic contexts of their homelands and the role they play in enabling inequity. Presentations looking at reform policies in Azerbaijan, Peru and Chile, for example, touched on issues such as corruption in admissions and political crisis as catalyst for change. My focus is on how inequalities might present themselves in cross-cultural collaboration.

“People come with different agendas but we still have a common theme,” says Po Yang, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Peking University in China, who led a seminar on quantitative approaches to analysis. “We’re trying to debate at the very abstract level how you operationalise this idea of social inequality.”

Summer school in its fifth year

This was the fifth year of the summer school, hosted by the Institute of Education at the Moscow-based National Research University Higher School of Economics, or HSE, and offered in collaboration with the China Institute for Educational Finance Research at Peking University. Our venue was HSE's stately campus in the town of Pushkin, a short walk to the country residence of Catherine I of Russia.

Through a series of seminars, group projects and critiques, the summer school objective is to “create a space where everyone can learn, get new ideas and also feel supported academically and personally”, says Anna Smolentseva, senior researcher at the Institute of Education.

Examples past and present reminded us of the many guises in which inequality exists, as well as the limits of higher education's ability to tame a societal problem.

Chirakkal Madhavan Malish, one of the few participants among us who has achieved the title of doctor, brought that home in his presentation on a research project exploring the effects of admission quotas in India.

While university enrolments of disadvantaged students soared, beneficiaries of the policy reported discrimination on campus in other shapes and sizes, including ethnic jokes and neglect by their instructors.

The increased student diversity is seen by institutional leaders and faculty there as the “root cause” of deteriorating academic standards and quality, said Malish, an assistant professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi.

Similarly, the former Soviet Union in the 1930s combined class- and ethnicity-based quotas to create a more diverse meritocracy in its universities – but only up to a point, Isak Froumin, academic supervisor at HSE's Institute of Education, told us. And upon the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, institutions abandoned such policies altogether, ushering in what Froumin called a “triumph of inequality”.

A 2011 report by the institute pointed out the growing inequality in Russian education, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012 to initiate a programme aimed at equalising education opportunities.

Affirmative action

Katharina Posch, a graduate student looking at the socio-economic composition of students in Austrian universities, called Froumin's presentation one of her "aha" moments.

"Affirmative action policies do work if executed strictly and aggressively,” says Posch, a teaching and research associate at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. “But [Froumin] also showed what is behind it and what further consequences there might be. What happens to the field of higher education? What happens to overall social inequality?”

Many of us were struck by the power of cultural factors mentioned by Jussi Välimaa, of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä. Nordic countries, including their universities, are among the most equitable in the world, he told us, and a big reason is trust.

Such an antidote, with all of its nuance, would inform our thinking through the end of the week, when we worked in teams to come up with strategies to reduce social inequality in higher education. Alas, "We can't all be Finland", became a rallying cry for one group.

Whether we come up with more useful answers over the course of our lives remains to be seen. If the first step toward change is commitment to social equality, the discussion at the summer school offered hope. Hope, and bit of new data.

“Some have passionate concerns, some see it as part of their life story,” says faculty member Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London in the United Kingdom.

Still, the "clear message" of many papers is that the solutions to social inequity in higher education neither start nor end at the university door, he adds.

"Participants looked beyond the higher education sector to rethink its relationship with society and economy, which is where the motors of inequality are found."