From Socialist Voice, November 2010

Class and education

Part 2


Education is a class issue: all the statistical studies confirm this. ESRI figures for 2003 record participation rates and participation ratios for new entrants to third-level education, categorised by their fathers’ socio-economic group. The participation rate is the percentage of each socio-economic group that enters third-level education; and the participation ratio measures the proportion of all new entrants made up by each socio-economic group against their proportion in the population as a whole.
     In 2003, 54 per cent of the age cohort entered third-level education. Farmers (88 per cent) and higher professionals (87 per cent) were at the top end of the scale; employers and managers (64 per cent) and skilled manual workers (60 per cent) came in the middle; while semi-skilled and unskilled workers (47 per cent), lower professionals (42 per cent) and salaried and intermediate non-manual workers (30 per cent) were at the bottom.
     In terms of the participation ratios, farmers (1.62 times) and higher professionals (1.61) made up a much higher proportion of students than they did of the general population; employers and managers (1.19) and skilled manual workers (1.11) were also “over-represented”; while semi-skilled and unskilled workers (0.87), lower professionals (0.79) and salaried and intermediate non-manual employees (0.56) were under-represented.
     What these figures show is that access to third-level education reflects the class structure of society. After several decades of government policy that seeks to encourage wider participation and to overcome social disadvantage, and in spite of legislation that compels the third-level institutions to improve access for disadvantaged groups, there is not a level playing field: young people’s entry to third-level education remains hugely influenced by the position of their families in the social hierarchy.
     This should not surprise us: we live in a class society, and strategies that ignore the class structure cannot produce equal and “fair” outcomes.
     Nonetheless, government policy has had some impact. The participation rate in higher education rose from 11 per cent in 1965/66 to 50 per cent in 2001 and 54 per cent by 2003. While these figures conceal the class discrepancies shown above, there have been large increases in the rates of young people from less well-off and working-class backgrounds attending third level. For example, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers increased their participation rate between 1980 and 2003 from 5 per cent to 47 per cent, and skilled manual workers have increased their rate from 9 to 60 per cent.
     Of course participation rates also increased among most other groups, including farmers and higher professionals at the upper end of the participation scale.
     It is difficult to analyse these changes with complete confidence, because the necessary statistical research has not been conducted, but a number of issues arise.
     Firstly, there is the question of what have been called “yellow-pack” courses. The huge increase in the numbers attending third-level institutions has been accompanied by a corresponding growth in the number and range of courses available.
     Anecdotal evidence suggests that this mushrooming of places has been partly on the basis of courses with lower status and less leverage in the employment market. Degrees in surfing, knitting and golf-course management are now offered in Britain; and while we should be cautious about how we judge this (subjects that are now unquestioned, such as nursing or dance, were once derided), there seems to be little doubt that all courses are not equal.
     It must then be asked, Who is taking which courses at third level? In Britain (where more information is available) the elite, fee-paying public schools continue to dominate the top universities, which in turn dominate the top layers of the political, business and financial spheres. It would be interesting to have similar data for Ireland, but in its absence we can assume with a degree of certainty that the children of the better off are attending Trinity, UCD, and the other NUI universities, while the less well-off predominate in the ITs and other colleges.
     Strategies based on improving access to third-level education for disadvantaged groups fail to undermine the workings of the class system, and the education system plays an important role in reproducing the class structures in society.
     Secondly, there is the question of social mobility. Arguably, the increase in the number of students from the less well-off groups attending third-level education has improved the chances of some of those people moving up the hierarchy of employment and social status.
     This should not be denied; but, although it is the cornerstone of meritocratic theories about the organisation of society, social mobility does not offer any answer to questions of freedom, equality, or solidarity, much less to issues of class.
     During the French Revolution there was a meritocratic element to the idealism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In the context of moving away from the aristocratic regime this was a significant change; but it also set limits to the revolutionary potential of that upheaval.
     The Giddens-Blairite “Third Way” also favours meritocracy and equality of opportunity over the transformation of society. Social mobility leaves intact the class structures of society while allowing some movement up and down the employment ladder.
     Capitalism rests on ownership, which it protects in its laws, but it is not threatened by movement between lower-status and higher-status jobs. (The middle classes, of course, who do not constitute a distinct class in Marxist thinking, work very hard to preserve their differential advantages under capitalism.)
     As a strategy for social change, social mobility is ineffective, and it perpetuates the exploitation of workers by capital.
     Education has also contributed to a process of occupational upgrading on a societal level. In Ireland more people are employed in jobs requiring more qualifications, knowledge and skills and that pay higher wages. In 2002, for example, 30½ per cent of the population belonged to the socio-economic groups embracing employers, managers, and higher and lower professionals.
     While this is not insignificant, it leaves the class structures of society intact. Class is determined by ownership and relationship to the means of production. Many of those who do not own property are co-opted by capital through differential rewards and privileges. Capitalism systematically transfers wealth that is socially produced by workers to the owners of capital; and while some of this transferred wealth is paid to those who run society in the interests of capital (politicians, managers, professionals, etc.), the basic structure is left unchanged by both social mobility and occupational upgrading.
     What this shows is that the strategies for education adopted by the Government, the equality sector and others cannot solve the problems they set out to address. They will never eradicate inequality and disadvantage if they continue to pursue these approaches. This is because all their solutions are based on education. How can education be made more accessible? How can children from disadvantaged backgrounds be kept in the education system and helped to perform better? How can the institutions and courses be adapted to be more “inclusive”?
     What they fail to understand is that we live in a class society, and the education system is one of the means by which class structures are reproduced. The problems are class issues, not abstract issues about education and disadvantage, but all the proposed solutions are based on education, not class.
     Communism promises an answer to these problems. When education is regarded as a social good, which contributes to the development of people as fully realised human beings and to the social creation of wealth in a society that regards collective rewards (the common good) as superior to individual rewards, then questions about disadvantage and access, social mobility and occupational upgrading, fees and privilege, will no longer arise. Education will not then be used as a means of reinforcing and reproducing the class structures in society but will be a means to the liberation of all.
     In the meantime we must continue to demand the maximum democratisation of society, in all its political, economic, social, cultural and other spheres. In the realm of education this would mean decision-making power over education being returned to the citizens: the power to decide what is taught, how it is taught, and to what end.
     Obviously, these decisions could not be taken in isolation but with regard to overall social objectives and the common good. It would be very different from what we have today, where business and policy-makers make education increasingly subservient to the needs of capital.
[CF]

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