The Trilemma of Higher Education and Equality of Opportunity: Social Background, Access to Higher Education and the Moderating Impact of Enrolment and Public Subsidization

Timm Fulge

Compared to the attention given to classic social policies such as unemployment insurance or pension schemes (see Dingeldey, Heisig and Sch wander in this volume), education policy occupies a peculiar spot in welfare state research. While in Anglo-Saxon countries education has traditionally been understood as a central component of social policy provision, European scholars have long been reluctant to place it within the realm of the welfare state (Wilensky 1974; Flora and Heidenheimer 1981; Castles 1989; Allmendinger and Leibfried 2003); thus, they have largely neglected it in their studies (Busemeyer and Trampusch 2011). Re-conceptualized as central to the formation of skills and human capital, however, scholars have begun to analyze complementarities (defined as

T. Fulge (*)

University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2016 157

M. Wulfgramm et al. (eds.), Welfare State Transformations and Inequality in OECD Countries, Transformations of the State,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51184-3_8

interdependence and mutual reinforcement of existing institutional setups) between education policy, varieties of capitalism and social protection schemes (Estevez-Abe et al. 2001; Iversen and Soskice 2001; Iversen and Stephens 2008; Busemeyer 2012).

One of the most interesting debates in this context revolves around the redistributive implications of education policy. Debating the tradeoff between public spending on education and other (plainly redistributive) social policies, two different schools of thought have emerged. One view is that heavy investment in public education offers protection from life risks and can thus be understood as an ‘intended alternative to other social insurance guarantees by the state’ (Hega and Hokenmaier 2002, 3; see also Janowitz 1976). The underlying notion of welfare in this view is that state policies should be directed towards achieving an equality of opportunity through education spending rather than a transfer-induced equality of condition (Castles 1989, 43). Investment in education thereby forms one of the building blocks of supply-oriented welfare states (see Starke, Wulfgramm and Obinger in this volume). In contrast, it has also been argued that investment in education—and particularly in academic education—amounts to a regressive transfer from the lower to the upper classes because privileged groups are much more likely to reap the benefits of receiving education in the form of higher lifetime earnings (Ansell 2008; Iversen and Stephens 2008, 618; Busemeyer 2009). According to this view, parents from lower social strata lack the social capital to stimulate the educational success of their children, resulting in little i nter-generational social mobility and thus the need for more passive and overtly redistributive social protection schemes (Room 2002).

Within this debate, higher education—defined as post-secondary academic education—is a particularly interesting case, spurring sizable academic discussions on the determinants of public spending in higher education (Boix 1997; Busemeyer 2007; Rauh et al. 2011) and the institutional make-up of different higher education systems (Clark 1983; Ansell 2008; Dobbins et al. 2011). However, though access to and participation in higher education certainly have an enormous influence on the future economic and social position of an individual within contemporary knowledge-based societies, inequality research has rarely studied the transition from secondary to higher education in a quantitative and comparative way. In particular, scholars have seldom considered combining individual-level characteristics with institutional factors of the specific higher education system in which the transition takes place.

Therefore, the goal of this chapter is to comparatively analyze inequalities of opportunity in the access to higher education institutions. While most of the contributions in this volume focus on inequality of outcomes (for example, income inequality), inequality of opportunity refers to the antecedents of these outcomes. More specifically, it can be defined as the degree to which access to education is driven by factors outside individual control (Roemer 2000; Bratti et al. 2008; see also Gosepath in this volume). The theoretical points of departure of this chapter are the works of Boudon (1974) and Ansell (2008, 2010); see also Ansell and Gingrich (2013). From a sociological perspective, Boudon regards equality of educational opportunities as a function of social background, measured as the education level of parents. With regard to the institutional level, Ansell proposes a parsimonious framework in which three interacting factors determine the structure of different higher education systems: the level of enrolment, the degree of public subsidization and the overall public cost of higher education. Building on these sociological insights to educational inequalities and Ansell’s framework, I hypothesize that characteristics of higher education systems moderate the relationship between social background and access to higher education. More specifically, I assess to what extent the individual likelihood to enrol in higher education is structured by the level of enrolment and the degree of public subsidization. The overarching research question of this chapter can hence be summarized as follows: How does the institutional set-up of higher education systems affect inequalities of access to higher education?

Methodologically, cross-national survey data is integrated with country- level data on enrolment and the degree of public subsidization to test these prepositions. In the spirit of this volume, I focus on current OECD countries, but for reasons of data availability, the analysis is restricted to those whose participate in the European Social Survey (ESS).[1] I estimate a set of multilevel logistic regression analyses including both random intercepts and random slopes. The hypothesized conditional effects of accessing university are tested for by including interactions between the central independent variable (parental education) and the macrolevel indicators, which are taken from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics. Coinciding with the publication of the first five rounds of the ESS, the time frame of the analysis is from 2002 to 2010.

The chapter is structured as follows: after formulating the theoretical framework, I derive a set of research hypotheses, and introduce data and method. Subsequently, I present the results of the analysis and conclude with a brief discussion thereof.

  • [1] Countries included in the sample are thus: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia,Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland,Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
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