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Privileging the privileged

8 December 20150 comments

Learning and education systems are entrenching privilege in the hands of an increasingly smaller group of people, according to a leading sociologist.

Professor Alan France says knowing how to ‘play the system’ gave more privileged elites the power to enhance their economic status while an underclass of working poor was emerging.

Professor Alan France says we need to recognise how cultural, social and economic capital works and turn it to our advantage

Professor Alan France says we need to recognise how cultural, social and economic capital works and turn it to our advantage

“Over the past 25 years education and training for 16–24-year olds has increased significantly. Now, 80 per cent of 16-20-year-olds and 69 per cent of 20-24-year-olds are involved in some sort of education,” said Professor France, of Auckland University, speaking at a conference on lifelong learning at RMIT this month.

“This generation has more skills and education than any before it. But in the process these people are accruing major debt under the user-pays regime that has emerged in education. This is becoming a serious issue across the western world.

“In the UK payments made by students in education and training have doubled between 2013 and 2015.

“Unemployment among the young has been a major challenge since the 1990s and is currently at 12.5 per cent in OECD nations. Young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults,” he said.

Professor France said the high-skills, high-pay revolution promised in the 1970s and 80s had not happened.

“It’s a broken promise because there are not enough jobs. Graduate unemployment is now a major problem.

“The growth in paid work is in part-time, low paid work and the growth in new jobs is slowing.”

In 2011 there were 37 million new jobs created in OECD countries and in 2013 that figure was just 28 million, Prof France said.

In 2009 full-time permanent jobs accounted for 79 per cent of all jobs. In 2011 the figure had fallen to 59 per cent, he said.

Prof France said the losers in this transformation were young people, the low-skilled, the poor, indigenous populations and young women.

“Youth wages are 62 per cent of adult wages and have been declining as a proportion since 2007,” he said.

Prof France said that since the 2007 Global Financial Crisis the top 10 per cent of the socio-economic stratum had increased their wealth while the bottom 40 per cent had seen their wealth decrease substantially.

“There are few explanations for this,” he said.

“The first is quality of schooling. There is also parental disadvantage – where parents are not able to support a young person.

“You also have situations where no one in the family has been to university before so there are not those expectations. You might have geographical marginalisation where someone cannot easily access education,” Prof France said.

He said privilege was the ability to mobilise resources and act to maintain their advantages in education.

“In this, the middle classes remain the winners. They have the resources to put into higher education and this has not changed over time leading to entrenched inequality,” Prof France said.

He said this inequality was invisible.

“It’s the elephant in the room that we don’t talk about and when we do, we legitimise it.

“This is not about merit or worth or values – it’s about one parent’s ability to give their child an advantage over another,” Prof France said.

He said that graduates of Group of 8 universities in Australia earned $200,000 more over the course of their careers than graduates of other universities.

In the UK, students from private schools have a one in twenty chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge universities; students from lower socio-economic groups have a one in 2000 chance.

“This is not equitable, fair or just and what we are seeing is the social reproduction of inequality,” Prof France said.

He said there was a need to make unfair privilege visible while also finding strategies to limit it.

“We need to recognise how cultural, social and economic capital works and develops to turn it to our advantage,” Prof France said.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist