Buying their way to the top

Tackling inequality and broadening access to higher education has knock-on benefits for the whole of society

September 25, 2014

If one theme has dominated politics and economics in the UK and US in recent years, it is inequality.

The phenomenon has been put centre stage this year by a flurry of major books, notably the unexpected blockbuster Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty.

This week, in our cover feature, we hear from Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the University of Oxford (and author of another book on the topic: Inequality and the 1%), who considers the role of education in the gross disparity of wealth and opportunity.

One of his concerns is that exam results have become the “be-all and end-all” in our education system, and that in the UK at least, “good results can be bought through private education or by buying housing near to ‘good’ schools - so the cycle of rising domination by the richest continues”.

There is a growing feeling that ‘reputation’ is all, with students buying into a brand, rather than the unique experience of higher education

Within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, he says, only Chile spends a higher percentage of national income on private education.

For Dorling, the focus on exam results is misplaced since “the more exam-obsessed we become, the less qualifications show about what a person is truly able to do”.

Meanwhile, “elite employers use university name as the key selection criterion, above any more sensible measure of capacity to learn, enjoy and be good at a job”.

This latter point taps into the growing feeling that “reputation” is all in higher education (or if not all, then a great deal more than it should be), with students buying into a brand rather than the unique experience that three or four years in higher education represents.

It is also borne out anecdotally: many of us will have heard of companies that recruit all but exclusively from Oxbridge, for example, although such policies are not explicit. That said, there are some excellent examples of
programmes run by universities to address the inequalities within the education system.

At the University of Glasgow, for example, a programme seeks to recruit students from the poorest postcodes to study degrees that prepare them for professions such as medicine and dentistry. Those leading the Reach Scotland scheme at Glasgow say that, on the whole, a student taken on via this route with lower grades performs better, and is less likely to drop out, than the average - despite the fact that many of their peers will have come from more privileged backgrounds.

Talking to the students themselves it is also clear not only that they are hugely committed, but also that they are likely to play a vital role in years to come in reducing health inequality in Scotland as doctors and dentists whose own roots are in the areas of greatest need. This is no small matter in a country where a woman from one of the most deprived areas can expect to spend 26 years in “not good health”, according to the Scottish government, compared with the 12 years spent by a woman in one of the most affluent areas.

The lesson, perhaps, is that addressing inequality in one guise has a knock-on effect in other areas. If so, it only bolsters the case for widening access and the use of contextual data to correct at least some of the disparities that close down the horizons of many individuals long before the age of 18.

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