Fair university access cuts ‘happiness gap’ between rich and poor

Research shows larger intakes and alternative routes to higher education improves happiness among disadvantaged young people

April 5, 2019

Countries that are better at getting working-class students into university have a reduced “happiness gap” between the rich and poor, a new paper has found.

Björn Högberg, a postgraduate student at Umeå University in Sweden, used the European Social Survey, a Europe-wide survey carried out every two years since 2002, to analyse how educational policies affect the relationship between social background and well-being.

Looking at the life satisfaction and happiness of almost 15,000 18- to 29-year-olds from 25 countries, the research showed that nations with better widening access policies reported higher levels of well-being.

Life chances are heavily dependent on education and therefore on well-being but “those from poorer backgrounds are much more disadvantaged when it comes to education”, according to Mr Högberg.

However, the results also showed that those from disadvantaged backgrounds reported higher levels of well-being in countries that had better “second chance” opportunities to enter higher education. This means students are able to enter university via routes other than the standardised qualifications, such as work experience or vocational qualifications.

“In Sweden they removed the opportunity to enter higher education using work as experience in 2010. That access route was mostly used by people from a working class background and so they were prevented from entering…these things affect people’s life chances,” Mr Högberg said.

The data also showed that people from disadvantaged backgrounds were also happier in countries that had increased the size of their higher education intakes and where the average cost of education was low, calculated by the share of expenditure that a typical student in higher education paid.

How early students are streamed by ability before they enter universities also affected happiness. Mr Högberg said that this was because early tracking affected pupils’ ability to gain the right qualifications to enter university. “The process of entering higher education starts way earlier than 18, it’s about when opportunities are formed,” he said.

The results show that Hungary and Bulgaria have particularly large inequalities in well-being. Hungary has poor second-chance opportunities and streams students from an early age, while Bulgaria has also has poor second-chance opportunities, alongside high costs of education, early tracking, and low enrolment.

Among wealthier countries, Germany and the UK had fairly large inequalities. Germany is an early tracking country, with an average enrolment rate, and poor second-chance opportunities. The UK has fairly large inequalities despite a high tracking age, because it “practises more subtle and informal forms of sorting pupils”, the paper says. It also has very high costs of education, according to the way that cost is calculated in the study, and lower enrolment.

Denmark was among the most inclusive countries: it tracks pupils late, has a high enrolment rate, has low private costs of education, and has generous second-chance opportunities, the paper found.

Mr Högberg said that if universities wanted to improve well-being inequalities they should implement better recognition of prior learning, more bridging programmes, and enable access opportunities of non-standard students

However, the main differences had to be made through education policy, especially at higher levels, such as through lowering student fees, he said.


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