Dead Men Left

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

More on the "meritocracy", and how New Labour's education policies have undermined it

Here's a chunk of something that appeared elsewhere in brutally edited form, concerning class divisions, the meritocracy, and how education affects them:

Inequalities along the traditional route to social mobility, through education, have worsened. While the numbers entering higher education has risen significantly over the last twenty years, from little more than 10% of 18-19 year olds in 1979 to around 30% today, these new students are increasingly likely to come from higher-income families. Over a quarter of 18-19 year olds from the richest 20% of households attended university in 1979; by 1997, this had risen to just under one-half. By contrast, in 1979 only 8% of 18-19 year olds from the poorest 20% of households attended university; this had risen to just 15% by 1997. New university places were disproportionately allocated to the children of the rich relative to the poor. [Stephen Machin, "Higher education, family income, and changes in intergenerational mobility" in Richard Dickens, Paul Gregg, Jonathan Wadsworth (eds.), The Labour Market Under New Labour (Basingstoke: 2003), p.284 (Tables 18.1 and 18.2)]

Taking the bottom 80% of the income distribution, covering the entire working class and a chunk of the middle class, we see that 25% of 18-19 year olds from this group attended university in 1997. This is an increase of 13% on the 1977 figure; however, it is less than the 19% expansion for the top 20% over the same period. Moreover, within the bottom 80%, attendance is again strongly biased towards the richer households: in the top quarter of this chunk, 34% of 18-19 year olds attended university in 1997, whilst only 21% of the bottom half did so. (Figures from here - PDF file)

Under New Labour, this gap has widened somewhat. A recent Higher Education Funding Council for England report found that, between 1997 and 2000, "...most of the new places in higher education have gone to those from already advantaged areas." The introduction of tuition fees had a limited impact on participation, but has significantly increased drop-out rates amongst students from poorer households.

If we compare participation rates across different Parliamentary constituencies, the same divide appears geographically. Seventy-nine percent of 18 year olds in Kensington and Chelsea, and 65% in City and Westminster attended university in 2000, compared to only 8% in David Blunkett’s constituency of Sheffiled Brightside. The same HEFCE report concludes that, "Young people living in the most advantaged 20% of areas are five to six times more likely to enter higher education than those living in the least advantaged 20% of areas." This again exposes the geographical divisions of class in Britain, especially when participation in the richest areas is set against the national average.

The great claims made about the expansion of higher education, then, must immediately be tempered by a knowledge of how that expansion has been distributed. Far from breaking down class barriers, the expansion has acted to reinforce them on entry to university. One study concluded that (PDF file)

"the role of parental social class and income in determining educational attainment has increased. In other words the British education system has become less meritocratic… Likewise, the social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously… Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged."

It is on leaving higher education and entering the labour market, however, that perhaps class can be seen most clearly. Much has been made of the significant increase in wages for those with degrees compared to the average. This aggregate picture disguises significant variations. Importantly, returns to education for individuals, despite having risen in general, are not evenly distributed (PDF file - p.15): those at lower incomes receive much lower returns to education in general, whilst those on higher incomes receive greater returns. In other words, education acts to reproduce existing inequalities. Moreover, after a period during which the distribution of returns evened out, they are now becoming more dispersed, particularly at the top end of the income scale.

One cause of this in recent years is the large pool of graduates not employed in jobs requiring a degree. A recent study found that 42% of graduates entered non-graduate jobs on leaving university, whilst 22% of all graduates were employed in non-graduate jobs (PDF file). There is, in other words, at any one time a substantial (and possibly growing) stock of educated workers available to exert downwards pressure on an increasing number of jobs requiring degree-level education.

The net effect of the expansion of higher education has been to both raise the average level of education amongst the British workforce, and simultaneously harden class boundaries within British society. The meritocracy does not function here.

In turn, this has played in important part in freezing up the social structure. The connection between an individual’s income and their parents’ is now much stronger than it was under the previous Labour government. Stephen Machin uses an index of "intergenerational mobility" to show that those born into the lowest income households in 1970 are more likely to remain in the lowest income group than those born in 1958. Conversely, fewer of the very rich now slip down the income scale. The very crudest class divisions in society – those along income – have become more impermeable. [Stephen Machin, "Higher education, family income, and changes in intergenerational mobility" in Richard Dickens, Paul Gregg, Jonathan Wadsworth (eds.), The Labour Market Under New Labour (Basingstoke: 2003), p. 287-288 (Tables 18.4, 18.5a and 18.5b)]