22 SES 08 A, Inequality and Diversity in Higher Education Settings
International evidence on educational inequalities consistently shows that the strength of socio-economic background effects declines with each successive educational transition. That is, although students from lower-class backgrounds are at a disadvantage, their ‘survival rate’ improves at higher educational levels. In England, for instance, a recent study of the entire cohort of school leavers showed almost no effect of socio-economic background on initial entry to higher education, conditional on attainment in school-leaving examinations (Chowdry et al., 2008). Social class differences in higher education participation existed, but were largely due to inequalities in earlier attainment.
Very little is known however about inequalities in access to ‘postgraduate’ education – that is second- or third-cycle degrees in Bologna terminology. Governments too have largely ignored postgraduate studies in policies aimed at ‘widening participation’ in higher education. Advanced degrees have experienced huge, if not revolutionary growth in the last 20 – 30 years as initial participation rates have expanded across the world. Whilst there is now a large and mature research literature on inequalities in access to initial higher education, very little attention has been paid to the persistence of inequalities into ‘graduate’ level education, perhaps on the assumption that entry to higher education would annul the effect of family background. Extrapolating the trend for declining background effects, this is perhaps a legitimate expectation.
If an investigation of inequalities in access to postgraduate study were to show a continuing influence of socio-economic background, this would have at least three profound implications. Firstly, it would show that a continuing dilution of background effects cannot be taken for granted as one moves through the educational career. Secondly, it would signal ‘credential inflation’ as access to qualifications beyond the usual first degree become more important. Finally it would suggest that, rather than inequalities in access to higher education being largely due to prior social and educational inequalities, universities themselves may be culpable in the production of inequalities at postgraduate level. This is important if we are concerned about the extent to which the academic workforce is representative of the society which supports it.
I will consider what little is known about inequalities in postgraduate education internationally in the context of the rapid and large postgraduate growth. I will then present the findings of my research on social class inequalities in access to postgraduate study in the UK, examining the extent to which background effects decline (or not) in this transition. Finally I will consider what the results might mean for access to postgraduate study in the future, with a special focus on implications for the change in degree cycles brought in by the Bologna process.
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