Susan Robertson delivers a keynote at SRHE Annual Research Conference 9-11 December 2015

Susan Robertson delivered a keynote lecture at the  SRHE Annual Research Conference on “Converging Concepts in Global Higher Education Research: Local, national and international perspectives”

The conference was held on 9-11 December 2015, at Celtic Manor, Newport in South Wales, United Kingdom. See also the TES’s coverage of this speech.


Higher Education: A Solution to, or Problem in, Rising Social Inequalities?

When Thomas Piketty’s book on Capital in the 21st Century was released in 2014, it became a remarkable overnight success and best seller in that it Piketty focused attention not only on the concentration of enormous wealth in a tiny social elite in countries such as the UK and the USA, but showed that their wealth had increased following the financial crisis in 2008. Yet what was particularly striking about one of Piketty’s solutions was his argument for more emphasis on education and skills delivered through institutions of higher education.

In this keynote address I show that Piketty’s arguments are based on an increasingly problematic assumption; that higher education sits outside of, rather than being part of, the dynamics that have given rise to rising inequalities. In this keynote address I argue there are major problems with this proposed solution.

To begin, Piketty views education as human capital, rather than seeing education as being a key social institution involved in both the production and social reproduction of capitalist societies. It is thus a key institution in producing social relations, including class, race and gender, which in turn mediate ongoing income and wealth inequalities.

Second, Piketty’s dependence on comparing national statistics results in a methodological nationalist lens. Yet, as researchers increasingly show, argued elsewhere, looking at the world through a methodological nationalist lens is problematic. Over the past three decades, production and labour markets have become increasingly globalised, with important outcomes for the relationship between skill and wages in developed economies like the USA and UK.

Finally, Piketty underestimates the extent to which education itself in countries like the UK and USA has produced greater inequalities as a result of transformations in how the sector is governed, and the individual and social outcomes that have resulted.

The transformations can be linked to the income and wealth dynamics that Piketty is documenting; declining tax receipts to the state has resulted in limiting its capacity to redistribute and created a greater burden on households; education itself is a new frontier for commodification both for the state and entrepreneurs bringing it directly into the sphere of production, profit making and wealth generation; the corporate elite have used their wealth to fund foundations which in turn promote education policies and fund programmes fostering social norms, such as individualism, entrepreneurialism, and a “winner takes all” competition mentality, all the while displacing state responsibility and accountability for education delivery.

This combination of lacunae for Piketty leads to an intellectual cul-de-sac, and results in a missed opportunity to reveal the complex dynamics at work in producing income inequality, particularly since the 1980s transforming society’s education sectors and wider social outcomes. In my conclusion I advance three major challenges that we might consider to reverse the direction of travel around social inequalities and the role that a very different higher education might play in that.