What does the paradox of education mean

Paradox: more education, less equality

In the past few decades the level of education has increased worldwide. This leads to better living conditions, higher productivity and more social commitment - but can sometimes exacerbate social inequality.

Sociologist Justin Powell, Professor of Educational Sociology at the University of Luxembourg, explains why this is so in an interview. He was a guest in Vienna on the occasion of a conference on “Education and Social Progress” at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He answered in an interview with science.ORF.at who is excluded from the education system, where Austria is an international role model and where there is room for improvement.

science.ORF.at: Society is becoming more and more educated, more and more people are achieving formal educational qualifications. Who will fall by the wayside?

Justin Powell: Indeed, we are faced with a paradox: as general participation in education has increased, it has simply become more apparent that certain groups are disadvantaged and do not participate. In absolute terms, the education rates have increased significantly, in relative terms there is still a group that is even more stigmatized because everyone else has benefited more.

So the group of low-skilled people?

Powell: Exactly, a hundred years ago it was girls who are actually better off than boys in many societies now. Today people from lower social classes, migrants and especially young people and children with disabilities are disadvantaged. And my research shows again and again that we particularly disadvantage this group through segregation in special schools or special classes.

Ö1 shipment notice

An article in Wissen aktuell is also dedicated to this topic: October 8th, 1:55 pm.

So does more education lead to more inequality, so to speak?

Powell: In relative terms, certain groups are more marginalized as general enrollment and graduation rates increase. On the other hand, there are countries that support these disadvantaged groups very well. If we look to Northern Europe, for example, there is a great deal possible that we could also improve in continental Europe.

How can you prevent low-skilled people from being socially excluded?

Powell: Austria, Germany and Switzerland, i.e. countries with strong vocational training systems - we call them collective skills systems - have a great advantage here. Everyone looks at these countries because they enable better transitions between school and vocational training and through this qualification then into the labor market in various professions.

Do you mean the vocational schools or the apprenticeship with Matura?

Powell: Exactly, these are shapes. And if we give disadvantaged young people or young people with disabilities access to such organizations, then they will have a better chance of gaining a foothold in the labor market.

How much does education bring in terms of social opportunities, how much is put into the cradle?

Powell: We live in societies where we follow meritocratic beliefs. If we look back 100 years we see that we have achieved tremendous equality, but in areas like education or health we are dealing with ideals, we want the maximum, and that is very difficult to reconcile with reality. It is also a question of life courses, we only start once in a lifetime and these disadvantages can have lifelong effects. This is why lifelong learning and further training are so important because there is still an opportunity to benefit from education later in life and thereby achieve better opportunities.

In Austria, higher education in particular is still very much dependent on the home. In your research you compare international education systems. Where does social permeability work well, where does it work less?

Powell: This generally works better in comprehensive school systems that rely on shared learning by all children and young people. The Nordic countries, which put equality very much in the focus of their actions, are pioneers here, also because of the many transfer payments [such as scholarships]. And we can already say that such an education system leads to more equality. Selective education systems, such as in German-speaking countries, which distribute children to different types of school at a very early age, make it difficult and we have to consider whether we should strive for change much more than before.

Does that mean that in Austria you see the advantage of vocational training, i.e. the vocational schools, but still the problem of early selection?

Powell: Exactly. But federal countries like Austria in particular have a great opportunity by also looking at regional development, where a lot can be tried out. Of course, there are always international best practice examples, but you would also have to look at what wealth of experience is actually available in your own country. When it comes to inclusive education, Styria, for example, is very leading. And I would really like the government in federal countries to use such examples as models. And good ideas that have been developed over decades are really supported across the board so that they can also be used by everyone.

What do your comparative studies show, which points are decisive for more social mix in schools?

Powell: A later breakdown between different school types is also decisive for the social mix. Of course, spatial segregation must also be counteracted. This is a particular problem in the USA, where school catchment areas within cities and boroughs tend to become very homogeneous over time. And the interaction between education and social policy is important in order to counter social disadvantage.

What is your prognosis for the future, is the expansion of education continuing or has it already reached a climax?

Powell: I think we have to look at the whole course of life. We are investing more and more years in education and training, and that is also paying off. But I think we're more likely to find a shift in educational biographies later in adulthood, where one always enjoys new training.

Interview: Julia Geistberger, Ö1 Science

More on the subject