By Kathleen Lynch.
The impact of rising economic inequality on inequality in education is profound, especially over time. Education is essentially a competition for advantage in an unequal society. Those who have most resources and wealth, outside of education, can and will use it to gain advantage for their children within schools and colleges. Under-resourced public services like education, services on which those with lowest incomes depend heavily, cannot guarantee equality of opportunity for all.
Wealthier parents can afford to, and are enabled to, subsidise their children privately. Their private annual expenditures on education through fees, grinds, tutoring, trips, summer camps, IT supports, etc often far exceed total state expenditure on a given child per annum. As Michael Marsh noted in his book Class Dismissed (2011), economic inequality is at the root of educational inequality, and enabling economic inequality to rise annually is a way of actively promoting educational inequality.
Yet this is precisely what has happened and is happening in Ireland as the rich are getting richer and the poorest are getting poorer: between 2009 and 2010, the wealthiest ten percent of households experienced an 8% increase in disposable income while the poorest ten percent had a 26% drop in disposable income. (CSO, 2012: 11, Figure 1d).
This pattern persisted with the new government, as poverty rates increased between 2010 and 2011: “In 2011, the at risk of poverty rate increased to 16.0% from 14.7% in 2010…. Almost one quarter (24.5%) of the population experienced two or more types of enforced deprivation in 2011 up from 22.6% in 2010” (CSO, SILC, 2013:1). The OECD’s Economic Survey of Ireland (OECD, 2013: 35), published in September, confirms that “Poverty and social exclusion have increased since the crisis…”
Cuts to Educational Services and Supports: Punishing the Poor
Not only have the current and previous governments enabled economic inequalities to rise, they have compounded this injustice by cutting or greatly reducing the supports that lower-income households need to participate as equals in education. Blanket cuts to child benefit in the recent budget had the greatest impact on those who are poorest; as have the very significant decreases in Rent Allowance, which eat into the very meagre budget of the poorest families in the State.
Both recent governments have also reduced the resources that schools and colleges need to support those who do not have access to discretionary funding from their families. While the unjustifiable cuts to educational services for children with learning disabilities have received some public attention, relatively little attention has been given to the significant reduction in language supports for immigrant children, despite the evidence from the 2011 census that one in seven children under the age of 14 is from an ethnic minority (excluding Traveller) or migrant background. Traveller-specific educational supports have also been devastated with a cut of 80% in recent budgets. This happened despite compelling evidence that Travellers are among the most educationally disadvantaged groups in Ireland. As many immigrants and Travellers are not only economically and socially vulnerable, but also lack a powerful, organised public voice, this makes the attack on their educational supports especially reprehensible.
Class Inequality and Educational Attainment
A survey by Barnardos in 2012 found that, on average, parents are spending €355 for a child in senior infants, €390 for children in fourth class in primary school and €770 for children going into first year in second-level education. Yet the Back to School Allowance in 2013 was only €100 for children aged four to eleven and €200 for a child aged 12 or over, for that minority who are entitled to it. This is an enormous disparity between expenditures and supports. When this is combined with the reduction in school transport supports (unless the child has a medical card), and the planned reductions in one–parent-family payments, it is clear that both the current and previous government policies have been to punish the most vulnerable and the most voiceless.
Policies that increase economic inequalities and reduce public educational services and supports will exacerbate an already unequal educational system. Emer Smyth and Selina McCoy’s Investing in Education (2009: 7, Figure 2.2) report showed that there were already significant social-class differences in attainment before the financial crisis. At the end of primary school, children from higher professional backgrounds had a mean literacy score of 43 (out of a possible 50) while those from semi- or un-skilled manual backgrounds had a score of 28 and those in households where neither parent was employed had a mean score of 25. These social-class-related differences are huge and are compounded by, and contribute to, differences in educational attainment at junior and leaving certificate levels, all of which, in turn, translate into further class inequalities in gaining access to higher education. What the government is doing is making a bad educational situation worse for the most disadvantaged.
Cuts in Higher Education: Keeping people in their place
Although there has been no major discussion of the impact of cuts on low-income working-class, immigrant, disabled, lone-parent or mature students in higher and further education, the impact has been considerable. Between 2010 and 2011, students were among the groups that showed a statistically significant change in their at-risk-of-poverty rate. While 22.7% of students were at risk of poverty in 2010, this rose to 31.4% in 2011. This means that almost one third of students are now at risk of poverty (CSO, 2013: 4).
There have been a number of really pernicious cuts in further and higher education that are profoundly class-biased and that have led to this situation. New entrants under the Back to Education Allowance (benefitting the disabled, lone parents and the unemployed) will no longer get maintenance support. This makes it almost impossible for those mature students on low incomes, or those with young children who need childcare, to return to third-level education. Moreover, those students who are from low-income families and on grants, at undergraduate level, and who need to do a further degree/diploma to qualify for a job (such as the PDE required for teaching) are now facing a situation where they will not have their fees paid unless they are on the poverty line, and they will receive no maintenance grant.
Families on very average or low incomes have to pay fees of €2,500 per year for each child in College. The removal of grants for most postgraduate education affects those on lowest incomes most; and it creates a comparative advantage for those whose families can support them to do Masters degrees or equivalent, gaining credentials that are increasingly required to make one professionally employable in many walks of life.
‘Taking into account involuntary part-time work, and workers marginally attached to the labour market, the youth employment rate [in Ireland] is closer to 45% (Figure 11) [and that] Ireland has one of the largest rates of youth who are neither in employment nor in education (NEET) (Figure 14, OECD Economic Surveys: Ireland 2013: 28-29). Given this situation, it is both counter-intuitive and counter-productive (especially given the plan to have a highly skilled economy) to prevent students from low-income families from qualifying fully for the professions that they planned to enter, by cutting basic supports for fourth-level education. Surely the solution is to tax those higher earners who benefit from public higher education (including taxing capital which is often unearned), rather than penalising those who need to be educated?
Education as a Human Right
Education is a basic human right and is recognised as such in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The reasons why education is defined as a fundamental right are important to articulate publicly at a time when education is increasingly defined as a market commodity that should be provided on a ‘pay as you go’ basis.
First, education is indispensable for realising other rights, including the right to political, economic and cultural participation. Second, education has an intrinsic value for the development of the individual, enabling the person to exercise capabilities, choices and freedoms. Third, education enables individuals and groups to overcome other social disadvantages and prior discriminations, and builds capacities to succeed. Fourth, educationa; credentials are vital for getting access to other goods, especially employment. Finally, education is a Public Good as well as a Personal Good. It enriches cultural, social, political and economic life.
Education is a right that needs to be protected. Neither the loudness of a group’s political voice nor the strength of its political clout electorally, should determine who can get access to, and participate equally in, education in a just society.
Kathleen Lynch works in the Equality Studies Centre, UCD School of Social Justice