Working Paper 33
Expansion and differentiation in higher education: the historical trajectories of the UK, the USA and France
Published April 2018

Dr Vincent Carpentier from the UCL Institute of Education investigates expansion and differentiation in higher education, and the relationship between the two.

The paper casts a historical lens on the development of higher education and its wider socio-economic context during the last century in the UK, the USA and France.

The findings show there is a strong association between higher education expansion and institutional differentiation in the three countries studied. Dr Carpentier argues this association is related to socio-economic transformations, particularly economic crises, but points out that correlation does not mean causality – an important distinction when so many political, economic, social and cultural factors define the shape of higher education.

In terms of social mobility, Dr Carpentier shows that institutional differentiation was a key driver of inclusion of underrepresented groups at the beginning of each phase of expansion. Yet, longer-term, this differentiation tends to constrain social mobility, with the composition of the student body remaining stable. This stratified democratisation can be explained by a variety of factors, including significant variations in the resources available to the various segments of the sector.

Dr Carpentier also discusses the way economic crises impact higher education funding models, increase forms of inequality and intensify the demands made of higher education in terms of growth and (un)employment. For example, in all three countries, economic fluctuations are shown to affect the balance of public/private higher education funding with strong implications for institutional differentiation. The 2008 downturn differed from previous economic crises in its combined negative impact on public funding and private resources.

Dr Carpentier warns that the slowdown of public investment after the 2008 crisis raises concern about the capacity of institutional differentiation to maintain expansion and reduce inequalities.

Other conditions may also restrict the future expansion of higher education. Cultural heritage could have a negative impact on differentiation as it typically undervalues vocational higher education. Conversely, transfers across various parts of a higher education system could have a positive effect, and encourage social mobility (although such mobility is low in the UK and France and has declined in the USA).

Dr Carpentier concludes that the connections and tensions between funding, equity and quality are key to understanding the future trends of institutional differentiation and the expansion of higher education.