Is education the best way to cut social inequality? Students are told: work hard at school and, no matter your background, with the right qualifications you can get a well-paid job at the end of your studies. In this way, education can be seen as a strong driver of upward social mobility. But is this just a fairy tale?

Students from wealthier backgrounds tend to achieve better results. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this tendency into sharp relief, with access to digital education being easier for more privileged students (in terms of access to highspeed, quality internet connections and laptops, computers or tablets, but also suitable study environments).

What do our readers think? We had a comment from Freja, who says: “Having higher education only be available to the rich means that the poor are permanently stuck in [poverty].” Is Freja right that asking all students to pay for their education reduces social mobility?

To get a response, we put her comment to Mathias Maucher, Senior Policy Officer at the European Anti-Poverty Network. Earlier this year, the EAPN published a report on poverty and access to education (and it held a meeting on this same topic in 2018). Given all the work his organisation has done on this issue, what would he say to Freja’s comment?

Let me start by saying that in many countries we see a strong correlation between low socio-economic background for children and poor educational attainment and completion. Education and training can clearly reduce social mobility if it’s organised in a way that you have to pay to get access to it. Another risk is if you have Secondary Education provided by a public system free of charge, with a parallel private system where parents have to pay fees, which poorer families cannot afford. If such a double-track system exists, it will lead to social segregation, and low social mixing of pupils from different income and social backgrounds. Parents are also inclined to believe that in the private ‘for pay’ schools, the quality of education is better, that these schools have a socially more homogenous learning environment for their children, and that they offer more extra-curricular activities.

Therefore, EAPN advocates for the right to universal, quality, affordable, accessible, and inclusive public education throughout life, and this is for all. The EU treaties and other European documents recognise this right. We defend the position that schools, early childhood education and care, vocational education, lifelong learning are public services and goods. They therefore need sufficient public investment for the whole infrastructure – we have seen this with the COVID pandemic regarding access to digital education – but also for quality education with good and well-paid teachers. Schools should not be places of segregation, but places accessible for all pupils, free of charge, to help them empower and transform their lives, and to equip them with the right knowledge, qualifications, and practical skills to later secure quality jobs.

For another perspective, we also put Freja’s comment to Gary Stevenson, an economist and former interest rate trader who writes about wealth inequality. How would he respond? Is education the best solution to inequality?

Well, education is definitely very important for cutting social inequality, there’s no doubt about that. If you don’t have access to education broadly, then it’s going to be very difficult for ordinary people to move up. But I don’t think that education is enough in itself.

Look at the changes that have happened over the past thirty or fourty years, particularly in my country [the UK], but I think similar things have happened across Europe. Thirty or fourty years ago, my dad didn’t go to university. He just worked for the Post Office his whole life, and he was able to buy property and raise a family on that income. Whereas, with my generation, there are lots of families where perhaps both parents have degrees and yet they’re struggling to just raise a family. For many people in that situation, buying property may be off the agenda.

So, even highly educated young people who tried to get the right degree and job, unless they have support and money from their family, they can’t get a house. That’s definitely the situation here in London; if you don’t have help from your parents, it almost doesn’t matter what you do, you won’t get a house. So, yes, 100%, education is of course important, you won’t find an economist who disagrees with that. But, in my opinion, it’s not enough in itself. Once inequality, particularly inequality of wealth, becomes too high, it becomes very difficult for even educated people from poor backgrounds to move up, and it can destroy social mobility regardless of what is happening with education.

Should students from poor backgrounds get free education? Does asking every student to pay for their education reduce social mobility? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: BigStock – (c) EricBVD

35 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    catherine benning

    Should students from poor backgrounds get free education.

    Free education should be for all children in Europe. It was free in the UK prior to joining the EU or EEC. The reason given for taxation was free education.. Suddenly it went with the wind. Wonder why that was?

    Of course, education now is a hit and miss option. You have to be careful to choose the school that has some semblance of free thinking. Indoctrination is not education. It removes a broader awareness from those programmed to one way of thinking.

  2. avatar

    Free for everybody who deserves it through test. Middle class workers should not have to pay for their children plus for the others’ kids through taxes.

  3. avatar

    Free is not the correct word. All people in this world should have access to education and it should be affordable for all.

    • avatar

      nah, free is right

  4. avatar

    Everyone should have free education and free medical services.
    Stop paying racket to USAn military and support education.
    And ask USAn military to go home.

  5. avatar

    Everyone should, not just poorer students.

  6. avatar

    Why is this issue open for debate? The answer is obvious.

  7. avatar

    They have it… But do they take their chance… Many prefer to deal to steal….

  8. avatar

    No. It should be based on your ability to pay after you start working. The biggest hurdle to education is the day to day living cost.

  9. avatar

    Education may not be the only weapon to fight social inequality, but through education society has more problem solvers than problem creators, and that’s why you have a better society, even through inequality

  10. avatar

    All the people in the World should have free education…

  11. avatar

    The right to education has been recognized as a human right. It is bizarre to see a question like that on Debating Europe. Free Education should be taken for granted. The question is how we provide to those students from poor backgrounds enough support to have equal opportunities compared to those from beneficial backgrounds.

  12. avatar

    I am for a system where you pay and then you are reimbursed through annual Tax reductions if you work in the same country. It could be done at EU level as well. If not, poorer states pay a lot for education of people who then go and work abroad.

    • avatar

      poorer states pay a lot of money to people that they later underpay and mistreat.
      Were they offering a decent salaries and at least some reasonable guarantees on the work environment people would not be running away.
      And how is such a country telling its engineers or doctors and values their effort if they are being paid pretty much equal salaries to janitors and cleaning staff (seen it, lived through it). Thanks but no, thanks.

    • avatar

      I understand your point but what you say is not against my proposal. Simply saying if we do not waste public money on highly qualified experts which then go abroad and work for somebody else, savings could be used to pay more to people providing public services. In other words they could still receive a proper education but costs should be cover by them or by the state where they actually work. Other thing is that poor states should invest more in some sectors and pay more to doctors or teachers. But this is rather a priority setting or financial programming issue, while I am talking about the system which prevents the brain drain.

  13. avatar

    Everyone should get access to the same, high-quality education, regardless of background or financial means. Anyone found to be gifted should receive any training they require to be at their best. Admissions should be based solely on academic merit. No-brainer.

  14. avatar

    To begin, education helps to make the world a better place. It doesn’t necessarily predict success.
    Opportunity plays an important part of success. Education isn’t usually free, teachers need to make a living, too. Poor backgrounds, yes easy access but drive and ability also needs to be considered.
    Education provides a deeper understanding of what’s right, wrong, fair and unfair. As reasoning and critical thinking skills develop via education more often than not skills are acquired to apply to situations in their lives.
    Providing easy education access to students from poor backgrounds that have the desire, drive and ability. Perhaps making access preparatory schools.
    More often easy access isn’t just matriculation, it means books, computer, transportation, room and board, often prohibits students from poor backgrounds getting a higher education.

  15. avatar

    Free public education for all!

  16. avatar

    The right questions are: should food be free, should accommodation be free, should transportation be free, should clothing be free, should concerts and football matches be free, should plumber service be free, should hairdresser service be free, should all products and services be free? #FreeSociety

  17. avatar

    Everyone should get free education. Knowledgeable citizens are a social good, and should be paid for out of general taxation.

  18. avatar

    Free education is often not enough to students with poor background. Even if education is free if the environment of the student is “unstable/insecure (in sense of housing, parents income, other problems in the home living area) it may not be enough or even waisted money, as student personal/privat surrounding is distracting them to score good/required results. It is sad but true. Personal living situation has high impact on students “mental” state en thus study results/outcome.

  19. avatar

    But is free for central banks to print endless billions of euros without even raising inflation…where all the QE money went? Did it went to French and German banks? The data says that

  20. avatar

    fortunately the UK has free education & of a high standard

  21. avatar

    If education’s a cure for ignorance, then why not?

  22. avatar

    aren’t the full scholarships intended to address that? The question should be contextualized, this setting is too general.

  23. avatar

    Every student should get free education, and a salary to go through it. As it is done in Denmark. Better educated = better prospects = higher salary = higher income tax revenues to the state in the long run. It’s a virtuous cycle.

  24. avatar

    Yes. Provided it’s any good!

  25. avatar

    That should be not questioned Europe!

  26. avatar

    From poor background should be helped.

  27. avatar

    Of course. Equality is key.

  28. avatar

    Free for everybody who pays taxes.. Rich or poor. No discrimination. 🙄

  29. avatar

    This is a very specific question but in my opinion education should be free for everyone no matter your background. It’s on of the essentials for a human being. All people need to be educated. No discrimination.

Your email will not be published

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Notify me of new comments. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies on your device as described in our Privacy Policy unless you have disabled them. You can change your cookie settings at any time but parts of our site will not function correctly without them.