This is a great talk from Tressie McMillan Cottom at the 26th International Council for Open & Distance Education (2015) on the relationship between increasing access to education and the reproduction of socioeconomic inequalites. Her talk looks beyone simple physical access to examine questions of equity, equality and social justice.
While she acknowledges the physical barriers to accessing education such as the urban/ rural divide, her main interest is clearly disadvantages of income, class, race, gender, sexual preferences and so forth. My main takeaways from the talk:
* That disadvantage involves many different factors and there are significant limited on what education can do to address disadvantages.
* Education should be framed as both a social institution and and as processes of certification and both aspects of education interact with other social institutions and social systems.
* Therefore, if you expand education in an unequal society then you will reproduce those same inequalities, eg, expansion of HE generates a secondary tier of HE institutions that mainly cater for disadvantaged groups. Expansion does not extend to access to high prestige HEIs (this can be seen in Scotland where widening participation tends to be concentrated in the new, rather than ‘Ancient’ universities).
* The expansion of education does not produce more or better jobs without additional investment elsewhere in other parts of the system and in other social institutions to support for social mobility. So, labour markets must be linked to certifications and credentials for social mobility to happen: credentials and certificates offered need to be recognised and valued by employers. Broadening access to education without broadening access to labour markets generates disadvantages of underemployment for disadvantaged groups.
* In terms of policy prescriptions, there is a need for affirmative action to allocate expanded places in education to disadvantage groups.
* Also, Tressie makes the case of the need for higher education to offer a broad curriculum rather than to focus on short-life technical and vocational skills. Curricula should be positioned within transparent and flexible qualification and learning pathways that support lifelong learning. So credentials and certificates should be recognised by different education providers as well as employers, to enable and support credit transfers and routes of articulation towards higher qualifications.
* Within this context, online and distance learning is important as students increasingly need flexibility as they navigate other aspects of their lives including work, parenthood, care responsibilities, life stages as well as career progression. However, access to content is not the same as the development of knowledge so there is also the need for access to high quality instruction. Furthermore, while digital technologies afford enhanced access to the social component of learning and education current online and distance learning curricula tends to demote the social aspects of learning and so fail to develop the social capital that is a key benefit of HE (market signalling). Additionally, technologies do not overcome wider societal barriers to access to education so the opportunities of online distance learning tend to accrue to the white middle classes. As an example, the adoption of Open Educational Resources (OERs) tends to be by those educational institutions that are already resource advantaged so have the technical skills and knowledge to make use of OERs. Poorer institutions, students and staff tend to lack the technical skills to make use of OERs and tend to remain dependent on, and so have to pay for, commercial resources.
So a key issue arising from the talk is how to shift the debate from questions of access to questions of justice by enhancing the opportunities for social mobility for disadvantaged communities.
Education cannot do this alone as it necessarily operate within a wider political economy.