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!