2 June 2016

New paper: The social consequences of growing participation in higher education

Professor Simon Marginson shows how the growth in the number of people going to university has increased social inclusion, but at the same time is associated with a worsening of stratification of higher education systems.

In an article published in Higher Education, entitled ‘The worldwide trend to high participation higher education: dynamics of social stratification in inclusive systems’ Professor Marginson highlights the fact that worldwide participation in higher education is growing at an unprecedented rate. An increasing number of the population are going to university in most middle-income and some low-income countries.

Professor Marginson argues that this expansion is primarily powered not by economic growth but by the ambitions of families to advance or maintain social position. Yet it has not resulted in more equal social access to elite universities. Increased competition in larger higher education systems seems to have the reverse effect, with studies repeatedly finding that middle class domination of the leading universities has stayed the same or has worsened.

Upper middle class families have the best private resources with which to compete for scarce places. This varies somewhat by country. The larger the scope for securing private benefits through higher education, the more intense the competition for educational opportunities, and the greater the extent of middle class domination of the most favourable opportunities (such as places in high status universities), all else being equal.

Expansion is often also associated with quality problems in mass higher education in many (but not all) countries, partly because of the centering of resources and status on a handful of top research universities. On the other hand, societies that maintain a broad layer of high quality universities – for example the Netherlands and the Nordic countries – are associated with both lower status differentials and higher social mobility.

It may be that the level of vertical stratification in higher education is more important than is the cost of tuition fees in determining the effects of higher education in relation to social equality and inequality. When tuition fees are levied on the basis of income contingent loans, the effects in social stratification are moderate.

The intersection between social backgrounds and the stratifying structures of ‘high participation’ higher education systems is key, and the article explores this in depth. Larger social inequalities set limits on what education can achieve. Countries with high mobility sustain a consensus about social equality, and value rigorous and autonomous systems of learning, assessment and selection in education.