University Spirit of Inequality
On March 15th a regular seminar of the HSE Institute for Educational Studies took place, dedicated to the problem of accessibility to education for children from various social groups around the world. Jamil Salmi, coordinator of the World Bank's network of tertiary education professionals, spoke on ‘Equality and the Human Capital Development: the Role of Higher Education’.
The problem of inequality in education – not only in higher education, but also in secondary – according to Isak Froumin, Academic Supervisor of the HSE Institute for Educational Studies, has almost never been studied in Russia. The only attempt to do so was carried out by the Institute of Social Policy in 2003, but generally the topic of the inaccessibility of universities and schools for specific social strata has remained at the periphery of academic studies.
At the same time, this issue has long been in the focus of attention internationally. Jamil Salmi, who last year became a member of the HSE’s International Advisory Committee, is a renowned expert in this field. J. Salmi is an advisor to governments in more than 60 countries on higher education reforms and the author of the books ‘Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities’ and ‘Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education’. As Isak Froumin mentioned, Dr. Salmi has seen the life of students in different parts of the world with his own eyes, not just ‘been on safari’ to Africa.
Chances for a gypsy girl
‘Imagine Maria, a young gypsy girl from a Romanian village. She has no father, but she has four siblings, and her mother earns 20 euro a months as a seasonal agricultural worker. What chance does she have to become a prominent lawyer or professor?’ Her chances are low, and they are clearer lower than those of a boy from Bucharest who is not a gypsy, who lives in a wealthy family with both parents having higher education and is an only child.
In Europe about 4 million gypsy children, like Maria, study in segregated schools, and very few of the graduates manage to succeed socially. Moreover, all over the world, despite the fact that the general number of university students is increasing, higher education is still elitist. In Chile the number of university applicants more than doubled between 1990 and 2006 – from 16.3% to 38%. But the gap between rich and the poor not only failed to narrow, but actually grew. In Romania, according to another study, from 1975 to 2008 the share of children who successfully completed secondary school grew from 81 to 92%, and from high school – from 8.5 to 65%. But among the latter only 7% were gypsies, and these 7% make up only 1% of all gypsies in the country. This means that the increase of access to education does not always imply a decrease in inequality.
In Mexico, if we divide the population by income into 5 groups, in the poorest group only 1% of young people (aged 15 – 24) receive higher education, while the richest group accounts for 32% of students. But in developed countries, the situation is sometimes even worse. In the U.S. the probability of enrolment in one of the Ivy League universities (Yale, Harvard, Princeton and others) for people from the least wealthy families is 8.3 %. Students from the upper classes make up exactly one half of entrants. In France even the government promotes inequality: the universities are divided into general and elite institutions. The budget provides 6000 euro a year per student for education in the former, and 20000 for the latter. The irony of fate, according to the authors of the recently published in Great Britain book ‘The Spirit of Inequality’ is that in the countries with better universities the level of social mobility only decreases.
Victims of imbalance
Less women work in health care, business and technical professions, and in many countries they have almost no chance of gaining an administrative position. ‘In Russia people do not think about it, but recently I saw the list of the Academic Council of one large Moscow university, and there were no women there’, the speaker said.
Ethnic diversity is no lesser obstacle. For example, 19% of the population of Israel are Arabs, but only 11.2% of them enter universities. In Germany, Italy, Spain, the USA and the Netherlands the children of immigrants are in the same situation. But in some cases this is not even an area for discussion. As Dr. Salmi said, in one of the largest Berlin universities, where he is a member of the international council, he was told at an annual meeting that the problem of inequality was almost solved. But only on the basis of gender. ‘What is the percentage of Turkish ethnicity among the students? In Berlin they account for one fifth of the population?’ – ‘We are sorry, but we do not track this’.
The situation is no better with those who have certain limitation due to their health. For example, in the Netherlands they are more than twice as likely to drop out of their degree course than other students. In the U.S. they have four times more chances for that. In France only 7% of universities have support programmes for students with disabilities.
According to Salmi, discrimination at the university level is an intensification of the inequality at earlier levels of education. Thus, in Spain one third of children of immigrants do not even successfully finish secondary school. At the same time, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Spain is only one step ahead of Mexico in the number of students who pass exams. And the worst results of PISA were in Andalusia where, unlike in other provinces, there are no immigrant support programmes.
Why some are more equal than the others?
Obstacles to higher education can be divided into financial and non-financial. For the former, the situation is worst in the U.S.: in South Arizona the share of income which poor people need spend on their children’s education, grew from 59% in 1992 to 73% in 2005. And the size of scholarships for such students in 2009 was $26 in Arizona, while in other states the average size was $549.
Free education at the expense of the state budget is not a solution, but is a myth, Salmi believes. Since, if it is accessed mostly by those who do not need financial support, it turns out that the poor subsidize the rich. Student support programmes – those that are lacking in Arizona – are more effective. The example of Canada is interesting in this respect, where the size of the education fee varies by provinces. In Ontario universities the average price for one course is almost EUR5000, while in Quebec it is about EUR2000. But it is easier to enroll in Ontario universities, since there are more varied programmes and the level of student support is higher.
It is acknowledged that a test is a fair way of assessment and any applicant can enter a university based on his talents. But is this system objective? ‘I haven’t seen statistics for Russia’, the speaker admitted, but in Kirgizstan and Azerbaijan the probability of enrolment for a child from a high-income family is much higher’.
Non-financial obstacles include the lack of information on what university is better to choose, poor motivation for enrolment and continuation of education, the level of school preparation and social environment. It is possible to find a genius within every child, but the environment where a child grows does not always help this. Ernest Rutherford, 1908 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and the ‘father’ of the nuclear physics, was from a good family, and this helped him to succeed. Chris Langan is an American with the highest recorded IQ in the USA: Stanford’s average graduate IQ is 115, and Langan’s is 195 (even Einstein’s was lower – 125). He writes articles on physics which are understood by no one, but he is, in mnay ways, a loser. He grew up in poverty, his mother has had 4 husbands, and even after receiving a scholarship, he left Montana University before graduation, and what made him famous were shows like ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’.
People with energy
Inequality ‘works’ on a ‘tourism principle’, Salmi mentioned. To go somewhere you need a passport and a visa, and to get social success you need a university degree. You can take a business-class or economy-class ticket, and you can enter an elite university or a middle-level higher education institution. But while higher education is still inaccessible for many people, we cannot speak of social mobility, and the country loses a giant share of GDP because the potential of many population groups is not used. According to research, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania lose 5.7 billion euro annually, because gypsy children do not get an education which would enhance these countries’ economic potential. Moreover, the speaker added, recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Algeria show that it is also important to provide equal access to education in order to maintain political stability.
Returning to Russia, there is one more problem, the other discussion participants mentioned. Higher education has become widespread, but its quality in many institutions is a matter of concern. So, equal access to a degree does not mean that people get equal opportunities after graduating. According to Tatiana Abankina, Director of the HSE Institute for Educational Studies Center for Applied Economic Research and Development, in the USSR 20% of the population got a higher education, but the gap between the rich and the poor was smaller than today when two thirds of the population go on to university. In addition to this, there are no educational technologies for children from different social groups, Irina Abankina, Director of the HSE Institute for Educational Studies, said. According to her, Russia’s poor results in PISA studies is a direct consequence of the fact that the system identifies and rejects those who are unable to master the programme due to some reasons. Inequality has many dimensions, and it is deepening in some areas.
The affirmative action mechanism had an ideological character in Soviet times and was hardly studied at all, Isak Froumin added. In 1970s the universities had to maintain a certain proportion of children from worker and peasant families during the enrolment process. Of course, many of them dropped out from their studies, but those who managed to succeed were people of unique character. The fact that today this opportunity has been lost is a serious problem.
Maria Saltykova, specially for HSE News Service
Photos by Nikita Benzoruk