Perspectives of Educational Inequality: Variations and Entanglements of Local and Global Asymmetries

By Jane-Frances Lobnibe (University for Development Studies, Tamale) and Jana Tschurenev (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)1

Report of the Winter Academy “Inequality, Education and Social Power: Transnational Perspectives”. The Winter Academy took place in Berlin, November 16-25, 2014 and was convened by the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland.

An condensed version of the text is published via the online communication platform H-Soz-Kult.

Introduction

Participants Winter Academy

Participants Winter Academy (Photo: Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

As the global economy slowly recovers from the 2008/9 recession, rising social inequality exacerbated by stagnating wages and unequal income distribution is emerging as a major concern of policy makers and national leaders in both the “developed” and “developing” worlds. This development has come about amid a fast changing knowledge economy, requiring specialized labor skills and high quality education to meet the challenges of this complex technological and interconnected world. To be sure, there is a widespread assumption that a panacea to the current predicament is an expanded equal access to quality education. However, as a public good and ideologically charged concept, education is often viewed as a means of and for social mobility and is set with high expectations. But education can also produce inequality and disenchantment in case some groups are denied or excluded from its benefits. The interdisciplinary Winter Academy and conference “Inequality, Education, and Social Power,” in Berlin explored this ambiguity from multiple perspectives. The seven-day event was convened by the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland in Berlin in cooperation with the Max Weber Foundation’s Transnational Research Group (TRG) on “Poverty and Education”, the research network desiguALdades.net and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung.

Participation and Scope:

The meeting brought scholars from India, Latin America, Africa and Europe to Berlin to explore the various manifestations, contexts and perspectives of inequality in education. The academy program consisted of 1) presentations of participants’ ongoing empirical research and 2) in-depth thematic panel discussions and 3) lectures on general theoretical and cross-boundary issues by experts in the field of the sociology of education and educational policy. In the following summary report, we highlight and reflect on some of the discussions and presentations that touched upon the following three overlapping themes: 1) social diversity and inequality in education, 2) cultural production of inequality in education and 3) the global knowledge asymmetries.

Social Diversity and Inequality in Education

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Winter Academy (Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Needless to say that differential access to, distribution and experience of education depends on on the roles and status groups and individuals occupy in their societies. A number of presentations addressed inequality in education from the perspective of social diversity, asking how structural and institutional realities define peoples’ experiences. Even in seemingly homogenous societies in the Global North, as noted by Céline Teney, social diversity with serious implications for the (un)equal distribution and access to education exists along different social categories due, in part, to immigration... For the case of India, Meenakshi Gautam discussed how the ‘intermeshing of structures of inequality’ along gender, caste, and class shape the pathways and experiences of scheduled caste (Dalit) women in an elite college in Delhi. Also Marwa Schumann focused on individual students’ experiences by elaborating on how female students who specialize in orthopedic surgery at Egyptian universities were systematically discouraged from pursuing the envisioned career. Daniele Cantini analyzed the efforts by state universities in Jordan and Egypt to modernize the country and citizenry through education. Such efforts were, she observed, however, hampered by the neoliberal economic policies of the 1990s and the changing demographic compositions of the countries, which led to an erosion of the state role in providing employment and the sense of belonging. While the limited opportunities in public universities opened up new opportunities to private universities often of foreign origin, some of the policies that are formulated to address educational inequalities tend to ignore the experiences and needs of various groups either because they are too broad or one-sided, narrow in scope and ad-hoc in nature and thereby fail to recognize that people belong to or are defined by multiple social categories that intersect to shape their daily experiences.

A problem which was addressed in several presentations was the question of research methodologies, and particularly, how to assess the scope of educational inequality. Several presentations raised the question of how to assess the scope of educational inequality. In her keynote address, Jutta Allmendinger suggested that to be able to measure “educational poverty” effectively, we need to distinguish educational attainment in terms of certificates to the one that fosters genuine competencies. This distinction allowed her to demonstrate that segregated school systems produce differentiated certificates, but not necessarily higher competencies among the graduates of the higher valued streams. Rocio Ramirez (substituting for Martha Zapata Galindo), presented the project Medidas para la inclusión social y equidad en Instituciones de Educación Superior en América Latina (MISEAL), from which he developed a research framework that draws on Leslie McCall’s “Complexity of Intersectionality”, which aims to underline multiple ways in which social actors can be advantaged and disadvantaged at the same time.

The multiplicity of research approaches and methodologies presented at the winter academy and the conference pointed to the immense fruitfulness of interdisciplinary exchange and cooperation. Large-scale quantitative projects, such as Bharat Chandra Rout’s research on educational attainments of “scheduled castes and tribes” provided important overviews, but the qualitative methods unpacked institutional realities and experiences, raising the awareness of historical trajectories while highlighting the necessary context knowledge.

The question of designing educational policies in diverse and unequal modern societies cannot be dealt with adequately without considering the normative considerations underlying such policies. In this regard,Andreas Gestrich reminded us that historically, inequality could be an explicit and legitimate aim of the “politics of education” (a term emphasized by Neeladri Bhattacharya). The extreme case of this was presented by David B. MacDonald, who showed that residential schools for Indians in Canada were not only “total institutions”, but were today also involved what he described as “genocidal activities.” However, a common concern the participants raised was that even if social inequality was to be addressed by policy-makers, how could the aims of the education politics be defined? A controversial debate emerged in the gender groups discussion as participants raised the question as to whether the aim of such politics should be “gender justice”, “gender equity” or “gender equality” and whether the aim was the educational setting or society at large? Yusuf Sayed’s presentation linked social justice to strong forms of recognition, redistribution, and representation for the case of post-apartheid South Africa; the so-called capabilities approach (Sen 2000) was also suggested by several participants of the winter academy as relevant for conceptualizing the social ends of education. Several participants also suggested the so-called “capabilities approach”2 as relevant for conceptualizing the social ends of education.

Cultural Production of Inequality in Education

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Winter Academy (Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Another set of papers explored the contradictions and conflicts the cultural production modern educational institutions engender through the process of validating and distributing “cultural capital”, i.e. “the kind of symbolic credit which one acquires through learning to embody and enact signs of social standing”3. Through exams, rewards and other disciplinary procedures, schools ensure success for those who possess particular competencies and skills often associated with elite groups in society. Following Bourdieu4, Levinson showed how “cultural capital” is a social resource that is intertwined with economic capital and when, powered with economic supremacy, can privilege one set of competencies and characteristics over others. Stefan Wellgraf’s discussed the German idea of “Bildung,” which more or less captured the theoretical basis of this concept as a means by which the acquisition of skills and certificates serve as a promise to economic benefits. “Bildung” represents a highly value-laden concept, which is usually associated with the humanistic education offered at the “Gymnasium” in Germany, and not with the more practical curriculum of the “Hauptschule”, the vocational education oriented stream of the German three-tier education system. Much criticized in recent years for cementing educational and social inequality, the debate over the definition of what counts as “Bildung” layered in its class dimensions. This point was elaborated by Sunandan K.N., who, building on Gopal Guru5, raised the question of which – and whose – knowledge counts as authoritative in schools in India. The disregard for experiential, practical knowledge assumes particular political relevance of one system of knowledge over the other, especially against the background of the caste-based division of labor.

On the one hand, several of the project presentations demonstrated that analyzing educational inequality through the lens of cultural production helps us to think through the potential role schools could play in establishing new forms of symbolic capital6. On the other hand, they also underscored the fact that inequality in education can result from national policies and institutions that might deny opportunities to already marginalized groups on the basis of failing to meet certain standards. In the latter case, for instance, Jane Frances Lobnibe explored this dynamic in Ghana using admission requirements into the University for Development Studies (UDS). She showed how attempts to correct regional inequalities in accessing higher education between northern Ghana and the southern part of the country, caused by British colonial and post-colonial development policies ended up denying secondary schools students from deprived regions entrance into highly sought after programs. By looking at educational inequality through the lens of cultural reproduction, she argued that educational equality cannot be achieved without engaging and confronting the very mechanisms and structures that have created the divide. Malini Ghose questioned institutional governance from a similar lens but focused on the ways in which the opening up of new opportunities in higher education in India allow new subjectivities to evolve for a ‘target population’ as both subjects and objects of policies. By raising questions about what informs the aspirations and strategic choices of beneficiaries of education, she drew attention to how marginalized groups fashion discourses, policies and programs to fit their own expectations and understandings of politics in the face of exclusion from educational opportunities.

Participants also discussed how new and emergent cultural forms served to contest and engage with inequality in education both in the past and present. Sakariyau Alabi Aliyu traced the history of Islamic education in Nigerian Ilorin since the advent of colonialism up to the twenty-first century and analyzed how it responded to the challenges of the new order of western style education, including the interaction and tensions between the two systems of education. Using a postcolonial analytical framework, he showed that although western style education held better prospects for its beneficiaries, Islamic education has continued to adapt to changes brought about by its competitor. The unequal power relations between the two systems have been playing out from the early colonial period marked, first, by a period of resistance, then by acquiescence through post-colonial accommodation and then to Islamicization of knowledge from the late twentieth century. Maya Buser De explored inequality in education that stemmed from the production of new cultural forms at government secondary schools in Kolkata, India. She discussed the ways in which existing inequalities across caste, class and gender were produced and reproduced in schools through the distribution of cultural capital, and argued that although the efforts towards the universalization of primary education have paid off in many parts of the country, the competitive job market has made secondary schools also increasingly important for the future of youth from unprivileged backgrounds. However, since the sector has not received the needed attention, elite and middle class students moved to private schools, leaving the government schools to students from poor and marginalized backgrounds. Andrea Cuenca spoke about the extent to which the Colombian education system equalized or reinforced inequality depending on the social origins and destinations of students. She noted that highly educated families promoted efficient learning environments for their children and are more likely to reach their parents’ educational level or even higher; the mediation of family ultimately makes the difference between origin and destination of student experiences, suggesting that it is also a device for social mobility. Her findings led her to conclude that the quality of secondary school (strongly affected by parental credentials) is of special importance for later success at the university and the labor market, thus emphasizing the key link between accessing academic quality at secondary public schools as a way by which the Colombian educational system could break the existing link between origin and destination of students. The examples from Ghana, India and Colombia demonstrated that analyzing education from the perspective of cultural production not only allows for the exploration of the effects of schooling and inequality across historical and cultural contexts but also explore possibilities of an alternative pedagogic cultural capital for the “masses.” The latter point was highlighted by Debarati Bagchi who in her analysis of the pedagogic practices and didactic traditions of the Sylheti-Bengali script emphasized its resilience among the promoters in India and its diaspora in the UK.

Global Knowledge Asymmetries and Inequality in Education

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Winter Academy (Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The contested nature of knowledge production, such as in defining what education was, were were raised and discussed to contextualize the local and global asymmetries in education. The effect of the unequal international world order in producing and validating Euro-centric knowledge was problematized by a number of project and conference presentations. Of particular interest to speakers was the question about how historical structures of domination (i.e. colonial and post-colonial relations between “the west and the rest”7 and the expansion of the neoliberal international economic policies have marginalized the Global South in the process of knowledge production. Sarah Hartman’s presentation put this in perspective by examining the deficiencies of an underfunded and overburdened public education system in Egypt, which has compelled teachers to resort to extra tutoring as a strategy to supplement their meager salaries. A strong examination-orientation with “social, economic and political effects and implications that go far beyond the teaching and learning process itself” has turned into a generalized and deeply engrained feature of Egyptian educational culture during the last decades. Through an analysis of the coexistence, interdependence and entanglement of formal institutions and informal practices in the Egyptian education sector, she showed that the ideal of the welfare state is increasingly replaced by neoliberal values of entrepreneurship, consumerism, and the privatization of risk and responsibility, rendering access to education and other services dependent on the financial means of the individual.

In Peru, organizational and academic changes are linked to larger processes of social change in which either university students or investors have become part of a new social middle class that values higher education as a private good for social mobility. This development has given rise to an increased participation of the private sector in higher education. Guided by the neoliberal economic philosophy, operations of these private universities led to more inequality in Peru and completely altered previous ways of university operations, creating novel models of organization and mechanisms for student participation within the university community.

Conclusion

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Winter Academy (Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This report has sought to outline the core thematic areas around which the 2014 winter academy and conference on “Inequality, Education and Social Power” were organized. Multiple perspectives highlighted how educational governance, policy-making and the distribution of cultural capital are arenas for conflicts and struggles among and between groups bound by systems of class, gender, ethnicity, or moral orientation and region.

While the question of how to promote educational equity, and, beyond that, social equality, or social justice, can only be dealt with contextually, one general conclusion can be highlighted. It was generally agreed that focusing on educational differentiation is not the answer when dealing with culturally diverse and socially stratified populations, even when the underlying consideration is the recognition of difference. That became very clear in all the discussions about the German differentiated school system (Jutta Allmendinger, Stefan Wellgraf, Anja Schillhaneck), but also in the studies on the emergence of “private schools for the poor” in India (Geetha Nambissan), and in the case of post-apartheid South Africa. Paradoxically as it may sound, inclusive education is of utmost importance, particularly in the context of diversity.

Jana Tschurenev is currently a research fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen, as part of the Transnational Research Group “Poverty and Education”. Her post-doctoral research focus is on the history of anti-alcohol campaigns, international anti-vice activism, and educational reform movements

Jane-Frances Lobnibe is a lecturer at the University for Development Studies, Ghana. Her research interests center on globalization and international education, diversity and social justice, gender relations, ecofeminism and sustainability.

  1. Since both authors participated in the same working group and to some extent also in the thematic discussion groups, this summary is necessarily a very selective one and cannot do justice to all the rich and inspiring presentations given within the winter academy and conference. []
  2. A. Sen, Development as Freedom, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2000. []
  3. B. Levinson, School groups and the culture of equality at a Mexican Secundaria, Working paper series of the Duke-UNC program in Latin American Studies, 1993, p. 7. []
  4. P. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1977. []
  5. G. Guru, “Dalit Movement in Mainstream Sociology”, in: Economic and Political Weekly, No. 14 (1993). []
  6. B. Levinson, School groups and the culture of equality at a Mexican Secundaria, Working paper series of the Duke-UNC program in Latin American Studies, 1993, p. 7. []
  7. S. Hall, Notes on Deconstructing the ‘Popular’, in: R. Samuel (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory, London: Routledge, 1981, pp 227-239. []

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