Higher education is part of the problem of global social inequality, not a solution to it, according to a leading academic.
In his best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, economist Thomas Piketty argues that investing in education is the best way to tackle worldwide wealth inequality.
But Susan Robertson, professor of sociology of education at the University of Bristol, says that this fails to recognise that education in many countries is “a race between competing social groups with unequal resources”.
In a keynote address to the Society for Research into Higher Education’s annual conference on 10 December, Professor Robertson was set to highlight how factors such as class, race and exclusive universities meant that the rules of success were “always strategically selective of some over others”.
“This is the exact effect of inequality that Piketty and colleagues have outlined”, an advance copy of Professor Robertson’s speech says. “Unfortunately, they have simultaneously failed to identify how the technical/human capital view of education that they recommend as a panacea actually reproduces the competitive foundation of inequality.”
Professor Robertson was also due to argue that universities could not solve social equality on a global scale when highly educated workers in one country could be laid off in favour of similarly well-qualified workers in other nations who were prepared to work for lower salaries; and that private sector provision meant that higher education was increasingly “vulnerable to the logics of profit”.
Universities should be viewed as a societal good and funded by the state, and education “must be extracted from the vortex that is rapidly sucking it up into the new culture of capitalism”, her speech says.
“An education system committed to social justice and not market justice would have a radical effect on politics,” Professor Robertson was due to say. “Only then might education become part of the solution and not the problem.”