Can we blame universities for inequality in educational attainment?

I can see where this article is coming from.  Inequality in educational attainment can translate into inequality in incomes.  If people from poor households have lower educational attainment then we have a generational link between low incomes, which implies lower income mobility.  This is something that we may find unjust.

Why do I say “may”, well this depends on the cause doesn’t it – why does this inequality exist.

Now I don’t disagree that educational attainment is associated with income inequality, and the narrowing of gaps in educational attainment has been associated with lower income inequality.  I also don’t disagree that, looking at a person in isolation, lower mobility can be associated with lower opportunity.

But I am from a low income area and I am not sure we can blame universities for the fact that they primarily have students from higher deciles.

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On school spending and teachers pay

Interesting.  Education, and schooling attainment, seems to be a big issue over here in NZ as well – with a political consensus that we care about this issue, but conflict about “how” school quality relates to this (or is even measured).  So lets have a chat.

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State schooled pupils and Oxbridge entry

In The Telegraph, Julia Hartley-Brewer claims that the low percentage of state-schooled pupils accepted by Oxford and Cambridge represents a failure of state schools. Her argument is that Oxford and Cambridge have high entry standards and independently-schooled pupils are far more likely to meet them, hence the strong representation of those pupils at the top institutions.

She’s partly right. She’s right that independently schooled pupils perform better at A-levels, on average. It’s also true that Oxford and Cambridge have very high entry standards, which favours independently-schooled pupils. However, that does not fully explain the low rate of admission for state-schooled pupils.

It’s fairly easy to check because the percentage of state-schooled pupils admitted is one of the Performance Indicators published by HESA each year for all universities. The indicators helpfully include a benchmark that accounts for, among other things, the entry qualifications of students. That means we can compare the actual state-schooled intake for each university against a benchmark that takes Ms Hartley-Brewer’s concerns into account, along with other considerations, such as age, ethnicity and sex.

The chart below shows that we would not expect Oxford and Cambridge to take a high proportion of state-schooled pupils, largely because of their high entry requirements. However, even against that adjusted benchmark, they underperform.

Young participation in UK higher education

HEFCE publish some great maps of participation in higher education and, even better, release the data. I’ve reproduced the map of young participation rates below with a slightly finer grained, sequential colour map, which I think helps to pick out the regions of low participation. Areas where fewer young people progress to higher education are highlighted in red.

School choice and paternalism

There is a very interesting report out from the Social Market Foundation that investigates the characteristics parents value in a school. The core result is that less-wealthy families do not choose schools on the basis of academic achievement:


This leads the SMF to express concern that school choice may not lift educational achievement because some parents do not consider it important. They then recommend Government intervention to promote the primacy of academic success. The line they’re treading between free choice and paternalism is a fine one. One the one hand, they want free school choice to improve the quality of schooling. On the other hand, they have a prescriptive view of what school quality means. Read more

Secondary and Tertiary education and opportunity: Why fund them differently?

Note:  Eric has written a much much better and more detailed post here – my post is just a knee-jerk expression of how I consider the issue, and the types of broad principles we need to think about.

One thing I missed during the election was the debate about whether government should pay for tertiary education.  There were a number of people saying “we pay for kids to go to secondary school, why not pay for them to go to university?”.

We have to be clear about why we treat these things differently in order to answer this question – it isn’t just about cost, it is about equality of opportunity.

We fund secondary education as we believe it constitutes a minimum level of education and investment in ALL individuals in New Zealand – a level that is required to give people a fair crack at life and civic engagement. Some parents also decide to have additional tuition to regular secondary education, like Chemistry tuition Singapore, to give their children extra opportunities when entering a college.

We do not believe that tertiary education is required for all roles, all types of engagement, and for all people.  As a result, we are instead subsidising a group of people who will undertake this type of education (and receive the return associated with this investment) by taxing those who are not interested in this type of higher level study.  In other words, it is a transfer of resources from people on lower incomes who are less willing/able to take on higher education to those who (over their lifetime) will be on high incomes.

Secondary school education is paid for (and correspondingly compulsory for a long period) to offer opportunities.  Tertiary education is not as heavily subsidised, as we are generally against regressive income transfers.  We already subsidise it to a LARGE degree on the basis of assumed spillovers, and we offer interest free loans on the basis of “equalising opportunity” – but larger subsides would largely be a transfer to the rich hidden in the language of “transformational change” … just like industrial subsides to capitalists.  I find it perplexing that people view such regressive transfers as “left wing” ….