The Society for Research into Higher Education

Simon Marginson

Equality of opportunity: the first fifty years

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By Simon Marginson

The article below is abridged from the keynote address given at the SRHE’s 50th Anniversary Colloquium at Church House, London on June 26th 2015.  The full text of this keynote address is available via 

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2014) clarifies  the distinction between (1)  societies in which incomes are relatively equal and/or there is a high degree of middle class growth and social mobility, which includes (albeit in different ways and for rather different reasons) both the Scandinavian countries and emerging East Asia; and (2) societies like the United States or the UK that are relatively closed in character, with highly unequal wage structures, growing capital concentrations, and static middle classes that are under considerable pressure to defend their past-gained economic and status positions. Arguably, in societies of type (1), in which social stratification is looser, higher education has a greater potential to shape the pattern of social opportunities and outcomes. Piketty’s contribution is to explain the political economic mechanisms that shape social openness and closure, in different parts of the world and over time, and to demonstrate that between the 1950s-1970s the USA and UK were relatively open in terms of elite formation and social mobility, as open as Denmark, Netherlands or China today. The 1950s-1970s were the high-time of the formation of modern mass higher education, and of the key ideas that shaped that system formation—above all in the ‘Californian Model’ the promise of equality combined with excellence in a meritocratic society, as epitomized in the 1960 California Master Plan, in a related jurisdiction the 1963 Robbins report in the UK, and the scholarship of Clark Kerr (1963) and Martin Trow (1974). Human capital theory also evolved at its time, embodying the meritocratic premises that educated attributes constitute productivity, and marginal productivity drives wages.

We have long known that inequalities in families and in schooling pattern tertiary opportunities, that unequal social agency plays out again in the transition to work, and that wage determination is shaped by industrial power and gender stratification, but the assumption that education is accountable for an end-on transition from higher education to work, within as system in which everyone goes to the starting blocks with an equal chance, still shapes policy and public expectations—though presumably, City of London bankers and hedge fund managers no longer look to the universities (if they ever did) before giving themselves another bonus and sending it to the offshore tax haven of their choice. It has become increasingly difficult to secure greater greater social equality through higher education, not just because the 1960s equality of opportunity project has been rearticulated through neo-liberal policy settings, or even because social democracy has faltered in the English-speaking countries (though Scandinavian equality policies would help), but because as Piketty shows, capital has accumulated, grossly unequal wages are furthering the concentration process, unequal wage income for ‘meritorious’ managers turns into unequal traditional wealth in the next generation, and the private fortunes are protected by finance sector capture of tax and spending policies. In short, there is less room at  the top, the middle cannot grow, and there’s not much the selection function of higher education alone can do in the face of class and power.

Questions of inequality and education are central to the work of many of us, as emancipationist democrats as well as educators and researchers. The keynote reviews the approach to equality of opportunity in higher education, and in relations between education and work, in the context of societies in which there are formidable and increasing social and political obstacles to the achievement of greater social equality and the meritocratic dream of fairer social inequality.

Simon Marginson is Professor of International Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University of London

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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