By Herman van de Werfhorst and Yossi Shavit. Herman van de Werfhorst is a professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and director of the Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies. Yossi Shavit is the Weinberg Professor of Sociology of Inequality and Stratification at Tel Aviv University. He is also the previous President of the Israeli Sociological Society and current Director of the Educational Policy Program at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.
In most economically advanced societies attendance rates at the secondary and tertiary levels of education have increased in the decades following World War II. National governments expand educational systems due to a widespread belief that it enhances the productivity of the workforce and increases economic impact. Technological developments raise employer demand for educated workers, which in turn enhance the economic benefits of education. Families and students respond to these changes by investing more time and resources in the pursuit of education. This was especially the case for women. In most developed countries, women now attain more schooling than men and their relative share in most fields of study exceeds parity with men.
Sociologists have long studied the effects of expanding schooling on educational equity. It has been found repeatedly that simply raising the number of children that access higher-level qualifications doesn’t guarantee a reduction in educational inequality between the different social classes, ethnic/racial groups, or different localities. Education stratifies individuals in far more persistent ways than suggested by the optimistic hopes of governments and the general public. For example, in a recent paper, Shavit and Bar Haim analyzed what happened across 24 European countries to children who were born between the 1950s and the 1970s. On average, educational expansion failed to reduce inequality of educational opportunity. Evidently, the sons and daughters of the affluent social classes are better poised to take advantage of the expanding educational opportunities and are better endowed with financial and cultural resources to enhance their success in schools.
In addition, education is, to a significant degree, a positional good. Education does not only generate skills and competencies, as assumed by proponents of the opportunity enhancing model. Rather, education also functions as a social filter. This means that value in the labour market is determined not only by the skills that are acquired in school, but also by the relative position of educational qualifications. The positional character of qualifications was already noted by Fred Hirsch in The Social Limits to Growth (1977), who wrote that “if everyone stands on tiptoe, no one sees better.” This analogy suggests that expanding access to a given qualification does not necessarily increase its economic value in the labor market. Furthermore, if acquisition of the highest qualifications expands dramatically, then the value of all lower qualifications declines.
The positionality of education not only influences labor market outcomes. It also affects the distribution of education across families, social classes, sexes, or regions. Families are aware that the labor market value of education is positional. Therefore, they realize that their children must compete with peers in their cohort to stay ahead of the rising educational tide. The fiercer the competition for higher education qualifications, the more likely the process is affected by the resources held by the more affluent and educated. Therefore, social inequalities in educational attainment are more salient in relation to the most selective and scarce credentials. If a given education level becomes ‘saturated’ for a particular cohort in a country, such as secondary school completion in many OECD countries, inequalities move upward to higher levels of the system, precisely because better educated parents are more informed about the value of extended educational careers in educationally expanding societies.
Even in a relatively egalitarian education system as in the Netherlands, where opportunities for educational attainment are quite equal, new forms of distinction appear in higher education—for example, honors programs, university colleges and research masters alongside regular masters degrees. These more selective programs are typically attended by children of college-educated parents who are keenly aware of the positionality of education.
Organizations like UNESCO that advance policies and strategies aimed at improving equality of educational attainment should be mindful of the positional character of education. They could consider developing explicit measures of attainment levels for different subgroups (by family income, region, gender) in positional terms. Such measures would answer the question: what is the average position of different subgroups in a country in relation to the overall distribution of completed education levels. Moreover, NGOs and civil society organizations should also realize that improvements in absolute participation rates for disadvantaged groups may not automatically improve their position in society.
The positional perspective suggests that many policies promoting educational expansion may have limited impact on equalizing opportunities, both in the labor market and in the distribution of educational opportunity across families. Families act rationally and employ strategies based on information and resources they have available. More affluent and educated households will take better advantage of expanding educational opportunities, thereby preserving inequality of opportunity.