EMC experts react to OECD report “Universities expand but educational mobility lags”

Although universities have expanded in the UK and greater numbers of people are given the chance to study for a degree, the OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, says levels of educational mobility don’t match.

Here academic experts in higher education respond to the OECD’s 2014 report “Education at a Glance”.

Nick Barr, Professor of Public Economics, London School of Economics:

“This important publication documents trends in higher education directly relevant to experiences in England which are highlighted in my own work.

Tuition fees for universities, introduced in England in 1998, have increased. On the face of it, higher charges should reduce demand, but the reality has been very different. As the Report shows, higher education has expanded to the point where the number of adults with tertiary education has overtaken those who stopped at the end of upper secondary education. By 2012, 41% of adults in the UK had a tertiary qualification, compared with 37% of people whose highest qualification is high school graduation or equivalent.

The additional income from tuition fees made it possible for spending on higher education to increase more rapidly than student numbers. As a result, in 2011 spending per student in higher education was 67% higher than in 2000.

However, the passing down of advantage and disadvantage from one generation to the next remains strong. In 2012, someone whose parents had a degree was more than 6 times as likely to go to university as someone whose parents did not complete secondary school.

These findings are consistent with what economic theory and evidence suggests. First, because higher education has both social and private benefits it is right that costs should be shared between taxpayers and the individual beneficiary. Second, since most people cannot afford to pay fees at the time they are students, it is both necessary and desirable to have a well-designed student loan system. Third, policies to widen participation should focus primarily on raising attainment in school; the main impediment to participation is not tuition fees, but a failure to reach the starting gate.”

Professor Anna Vignoles, University of Cambridge:

“In the Uk the earnings premium for graduates remains high, despite the significant expansion of higher education. This is particularly so for women. Graduate skills are very much in demand in the labour market. The report does however, highlight the significant variation in graduates’ earnings. Differences in earnings within the graduate group are substantial and it is important we ensure that children from the poorest backgrounds access the degree courses that lead to the higher paying jobs.”

Dr John Jerrim – Institute of Education:

“The OECD analysis brings into sharp focus the low pay of young people who leave school at 16 with minimal qualifications. They earn 70 percent less than their peers who complete A-Levels – a bigger earnings gap than in almost every other OECD country. As certain groups, for example white, working class boys, are particularly likely to leave school at such an early age, it is quite clear how this entrenches the cycle of poverty and holds back social mobility.”

Professor Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor, University of Lincoln:

“High education attainment remains vital for our communities and we need to continue to encourage access to higher education for people from disadvantaged groups. This is not just about equity, important as that is, but also about our ability to compete in a dynamic and fast changing world. The role of lower middle tier jobs in creating social mobility in the last century was vital but these jobs are disappearing as technology advances, that is why higher education is more important than ever.”

Professor Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education, Durham University:

“This new summary of statistics suggests that educational mobility in the UK is both high, relative to all other countries, and increasing over time. Educational mobility here is judged in terms of the relative qualifications of parents and their children. And this is not a new phenomenon. It is evident even among 55 to 64 years-olds, the oldest age group, who tend to have higher qualifications than their parents. The proportion of 25-64 year-olds with university-level education in the UK is the highest in the EU.

Since earnings are strongly linked to the education level of an individual, especially in the UK, this suggests than income mobility is also high and tending to increase. This is not particularly surprising, except that the major political parties in the UK have long been convinced by some very dubious evidence that income, termed ‘social’, mobility is both poor in international terms and reducing over time. Considerable effort and funding is being put into a solution to a problem that does not appear to exist. There is an opportunity cost. Real problems for the most educationally disadvantaged in the UK, such as adults without prior qualifications and low levels of literacy, are being ignored.”

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