Universities: Past, Present, and Future
Gaële Goastellec, University of Lausanne, University of Toronto

Access to Higher Education and Degrees in Europe, From Tool of the Government to Inequality Regimes


Contemporary research on access to higher education tend to present equality in access as an indication of the degree of democracy achieved by societies and as an instrument of economic competitiveness. The adoption of a comparative socio-historical perspective shows that access first constituted a tool of government (Hood, 1983) participating in the very long run to the genesis of Modern States, before becoming a national, and now European, instrument of public action (Muller, 2000, Lascoumes, Simard, 2011). The shift from the historical referential framing the organization of access - the exclusion of certain social groups – which dominated until the 20th century, to a referential promoting the inclusion of all of them, participates to the European integration and the slow building up of a shared cultural model. States are incited to characterize the social belongings composing their social diversity in order to measure the participation of the various groups in higher education.

But, although massification transformed Higher Education from an elite institution to a mass or universal institution, still, the spread of an inclusion referential does not translate into a linear reduction of inequalities in access. Using the European Social Survey and comparing three generations, social inequalities in access to degrees appear to have first reduced during the decades after the second world war, but to be characterized since the 90's by a new phase of growth. And within this growth, inequalities vary greatly from one country to another.

How to explain these variations? Macro-social comparison suggests that they are rooted in the religious history of countries, but overall vary according to the hold of degrees on the professional and economic situation of individuals, confirming the results of Dubet, Duru-Bellat and Verétout (2010). More broadly, they are embodied in distinct inequality regimes influenced by the contractual modalities of the relationship between the State and Society, i.e., how different welfare state models articulate with different level and legitimacy of school inequalities (Andres and Pechar, 2013, Willemse, De Beer, 2013).