ERG SES G 08, Sociologies of Education
Topic & Research Question:
A central question in higher education research and policy is how to regulate the access to higher education without (further) restricting educational mobility. Against this background, my research project analyses how the introduction of access restrictions at universities affects the social stratification (i.e. the composition regarding social background) among cohorts at the time of enrolment and at time of graduation. My research project aims to:
- Developing a theoretical model of the social selection process over the study cycle, from the decision to study until graduation, and explain by its means the effect of access restrictions on the social stratification among beginners and graduates
- Gathering empirical evidence of the relevant effects on the basis of a quantitative analysis, using the example of Austria
The key argument is that the introduction of access restrictions and admission procedures, impacts different selection processes over the study cycle differently, namely the selection in the access to higher education, which again can be differentiated in self-selection (who decides to study) and selection through admission procedures (who is admitted), and selection during the course of studies (who graduates). On the basis of existing literature and studies it is assumed that the proportion of student beginners coming from educationally disadvantaged households decreases with the introduction of access restrictions; yet, there is less selectivity during the studies (i.e. lower drop-out-rates) and thus less social selectivity. This would mean that introducing access restrictions has an effect on the social selectivity in the access to higher education, but none or even a reserved effect on the social selectivity during the studies. The main hypothesis is, that while the social composition of beginners changes towards more beginners with higher-educated parents, the social composition of graduates remains similar. Social selectivity would shift forward from during the studies to before enrollment, but would not in- or decrease overall.
The research project focuses on the case of Austria for two reasons: firstly, Austria is one of the few countries with a general open-access-system (considering the criteria of Sargent, et al. 2013: 25; cf. Pechar 2007), but since 2005 access restrictions have gradually been introduced. Secondly, international comparative research shows that political reforms and measures do have different effects regarding national contexts, cultures and systems (Usher 2015: 444). Context-sensitive case studies help to better understand the interactions between (higher) education systems and specific measures. The focus on Austria thus is not only relevant to Austrian higher education policy, but compatible with international higher education research.
The results are interesting for higher education institutions, policy and research: firstly, evidence-based research is much needed owing to the often highly ideologized debate about reforms of access to higher education. Secondly, the results provide information on how to implement and design admission procedures in such a way, that it is not to the detriment of students with lower social background. Finally, the research project is a first comprehensive study of the effects of the introduction of access restrictions considering the selection processes over the whole study cycle. Underpinned with theoretical reasoning and empirical evidence, it contributes to a clearer understanding of how these selection processes work and are related and thus to a better understanding of the complexity of social inequality in higher education.
The aim of the empirical analysis is to examine the hypothesis that (newly introduced) access restrictions have an effect on the social selectivity in the access to higher education, but none or even a reversed effect on the social selectivity during studies. As mentioned, the project and thus also the empirical analysis focus on the introduction of access restriction in Austria. On the basis of relevance (for example size in terms of number of students) several study programs were selected for analysis: Human Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry, Biology, Psychology, Communication Studies, Pharmacy and Economics and Social Sciences at the Vienna University for Economics and Business. The period of observation is from 2001 to 2015, yet the period was adjusted for each study program depending on when access restrictions have been introduced. The dependent variable is the social composition, i.e. the distribution of parents’ education, which was measured as the highest formal educational degree the parents had at time of enrolment (either mother or father). I used national administrative data (“UStat1”-Data) from the National Statistic Agency (“Statistik Austria”). Every student beginner has to fill in the UStat1-form when enrolling for the first time at an Austrian university, so the data comes from a full, comprehensive survey (with some missings). In conjunction with another set of statistics about the study progress, students can be tracked if they still study, dropped out or graduated. A limitation is that due to data security reasons the data have not been available on individual level, but only as special data retrievals by Statistik Austria. Because of that control variables were only available for cohorts at the time of enrolment, not during studies or graduation. Empirical evidence is firstly gathered by the means of a descriptive comparison between cohorts before and the introduction of access restrictions, both at the time of enrolment and graduation. By comparing study programs, specific circumstances and contexts can be considered and differentiated. In a second step, analytical statistical methods will be applied in order to test the hypothesis.
The descriptive results suggest that the more competitive the admission procedures are, the higher the social selectivity in the access to higher education becomes. Even when compared to overall trends in parents’ education, the shift to more beginners with a higher educational background is stronger in study programs with competitive admission procedures. In study programs with less selective and less competitive admission procedures, the change in the social composition of beginners varies and sometimes there was no distinct change at all. The social composition of students and/or graduates often mirrors the change in the social composition of beginners. The claim, that the social composition of graduates does not change seems unlikely. Only in Human Medicine one can see less social selectivity during the studies, since the social composition of graduates did change less than the social composition of beginners. In other study programs no clear pattern has been found. I will do further analysis within the near future by both analyzing the differences in detail of the descriptive results and by applying further advanced statistical methods. More detailed and more robust outcomes can be expected until September 2018.
Pechar, Hans (2007): Der offene Hochschulzugang in Österreich. In: C. Badelt, W. Wegscheider & H. Wulz: Hochschulzugang in Österreich. Graz: Leykam. 21-81 Sargent, Claire, Elizabeth Foot, Emily Houghton and Sharon O'Donell (2013): INCA Comparative Tables: International Review of Curriculum and Assessment Frameworks Internet Archive. NFER. http://www.nfer.ac.uk/what-we-do/information-and-reviews/inca/INCAcomparativetablesMarch2012.pdf Usher, A. (2015): Equity and the Social Dimension: An Overview [Overview Paper]. In: A. Curaj, L. Matei, R. Pricopie, J. Salmi & P. Scott: The European Higher Education Area: Between Critical Reflections and Future Policies. Cham: Springer International Publishing. 433-447
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