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Helping the children of parents who did not go to university to get into higher education is often seen as the benchmark for improving social mobility in a country.
It is often unclear what are the best methods and policies to follow to achieve this goal.
But the latest data on the issue from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development may help to focus governments’ attention on the nations that are more successful than others.
According to the statistics, published last month in the OECD’s Education at a Glance report, there is large variation between industrialised nations on this measure of social mobility.
When looking at young adults (aged 30 to 44) whose parents did not go to university, Norway has the highest share with an academic-based degree or postgraduate qualifications (33 per cent), closely followed by Finland (32 per cent). Meanwhile, some major higher education nations such as the US (19 per cent) and Germany (14 per cent) score below the OECD average.
To some extent, these raw figures – which are taken from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (PIACC) – can reflect statistical and other factors including whether a country has been expanding its higher education system in the past 20 years.
However, a clearer picture can be gained by comparing these statistics with the number of degree-educated people in the same age group who have at least one university-educated parent.
Here, the greatest differences are seen in countries such as Italy, Turkey and Poland, where the gap between “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” degree holders in terms of parental influence is more than 50 percentage points, while it is 25 percentage points or lower in Denmark, Finland, Japan and Sweden.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, drew attention to the huge differences that existed between countries when it came to this parental influence factor, which the OECD says is greater than gender or age in determining if someone goes to university.
He pointed to the fact that in Singapore “you can see that someone coming from a disadvantaged background…has a higher likelihood to move into tertiary education than someone from an advantaged background in Germany”.
Mr Schleicher said that the evidence pointed to the overall education system being responsible for these variations, rather than the university system on its own. “What you see here is pretty much already mirrored in the schooling results that we see from…early in the lives of people,” he said.
That view appears to be backed up by experts who have studied access to higher education in different countries.
Graeme Atherton, director of the UK’s National Education Opportunities Network, said that the way in which school systems were set up – in particular whether children were streamed into academic or non-academic pathways early on – seemed to be a more crucial factor than how expensive higher education was.
“There isn’t evidence to suggest that cost is fundamentally affecting participation across developed countries,” he said. “What is more important is the nature of the system overall: the extent to which you have a school system that is structured in a way to enable people to progress to higher education.”
However, he said that there was a limit to this argument, citing the US as an example of where a “very underfunded general public skills system” coupled with hefty university costs seemed to have stalled social mobility.