Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

With Greater Participation, Even 'Greater Inequality'

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

With Greater Participation, Even 'Greater Inequality'

Article excerpt

Mass higher education entrenches middle classes' edge, global study says. David Matthews writes

The growth in higher education across the world has been one of the most remarkable social transformations of the past 40 years. Back in 1971, the GDP per capita of South Korea was less than a dollar a day (about an 18th of that enjoyed by US citizens) and just 7 per cent of young people entered any kind of tertiary education.

Fast-forward to 2015, and almost every young person in the country enrols in tertiary education (which includes both three-year university degrees and shorter two-year courses like those offered by US community colleges).

South Korea has been described as having a "mania" for education; last year, a documentary called Reach for the Sky followed youngsters stressed to breaking point in the struggle to win a place at one of the country's elite universities. Planes are grounded and the stock market opens late to avoid disturbing students sitting university entrance exams.

In almost every region of the world (see chart below), there has been a boom in tertiary education since the early 1970s.

Academics may be proud to be part of this massive expansion in access to learning. But according to new research by an expert on international higher education, the advent of "high-participation systems" may actually reinforce existing inequalities, making it harder for youngsters to climb the ladder of social mobility.

"In a system with 15 per cent participation, there is less competitive pressure and less stratified outcomes than in a system with 50 per cent participation," explains Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at University College London.

In an environment where just 15 per cent enter higher education - Britain in the 1970s, for example - "it is possible to have a successful middle-class life without going to university", he says. Those who do go to university get a real benefit regardless of where they attend, he says.

But in today's world, where about half of youngsters go to university, "the whole middle class is in the system and pursuing the success of its children", he says. There is far more intense competition for places at "elite" universities, because "participation in non-elite [universities] no longer generates guaranteed professional jobs". …

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