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Commentary: Education and inequality
Published on December 13, 2016 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

The debate continues as to whether education fosters inequality, or is it the force guaranteeing equality. Some observers feel that education by its very nature promotes inequality, which in turn is reproduced in society.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
The fact that the structure of education contributes to inequality is seen by the educational programmes offered by schools. These are structured in such a way, that decisions on what kind of client it will admit, operate to favour certain schools, particularly private ones, which are out of the reach of many in society because of socio-economic factors.

The majority are therefore confined to other types of public institutions which lack the quality of resources and personnel to offset the unequal nature of private schools that are better endowed.

Education therefore contributes to inequality since it produces social elites who occupy the commanding heights of the economy, influencing society’s laws, which leaves those not so fortunate disadvantaged. These elites intertwine in business, the professions, and in political and cultural affairs, influencing and shaping society in a direction that is to their advantage.

Holly Lawford-Smith, in an article in the Journal of Practical Ethics follows the theme I gave above, but carries it further. She states that unequal societies raise ethical questions for those living in them. One of these is how to respond to such inequality, and its effects on those who are disadvantaged.

She claims that those with class privilege have obligations to off-set their privilege because of their capacity to provide assistance. And argues with respect to education, that in one country, at the high school level, only 7% of the population goes to private schools, but graduates of these schools make up 75% of the country’s judges, 70% of its finance directors, 53% of its journalists, 45% of its top civil servants, and 32% of its members of Parliament.

The above statistics show how education fosters inequality, and disadvantage in society, and contributes to a class structure, with privileges, and influence for the few. The writer further notes that, in terms of social capital, some people have extended networks of friends, contacts, and colleagues in influential social positions, who can be called on for favours.

Education is therefore not only a harbinger of inequality, but through its policies and strategies, maintains inequality in the system. The example of the private schools above, suggests how education shapes a political, economic, and cultural framework where those who attend private schools, influence significant aspects of society, inculcating their values into its institutions.

The Caribbean, because of its colonial experience, has used education to create barriers fostering inequality. In many countries, private colleges and high schools were established using the model of the metropole. Only those with the ability to pay could benefit from a private high school and college education.

Many of these institutions remain today, and retain their elite status and the buddy system, although many are becoming more inclusive. They are the basis for good jobs, have past students’ associations which keep the culture alive, and their graduates can be found in various areas of the economy, and assist each other in whatever the area of need is.

In addition, inequality is reflected in the dispositions of these graduates who are a part of the wider system of privilege. Even the Caribbean tertiary education sector pits one institution against the other in terms of its status, and parents still feel that if their children cannot get into particular institutions, their future would be more challenging.

But another view sees education as promoting equality. Particularly in the post-independence Caribbean, some governments have made education more accessible to disadvantaged groups, undertaking responsibility for a major percentage of the cost.

Many secondary schools have been converted into high schools, giving students a more positive image of themselves, and a greater recognition is given to technical and vocational education, so it is no longer being viewed as the province of those not qualified for an academic or professional education. These are attempts by governments to off-set the traditional privilege of the system, making it more egalitarian.

Furthermore, conscious business organisations are adopting schools, providing scholarships, and assisting students previously disadvantaged to become a normal part of a system of equality. Education now is seen as a social equaliser, rather than promoting inequality.

Also, because of the change in philosophy by Caribbean governments, importance is given to human resource development to provide the skills and knowledge for a changing economy. Other non-English speaking countries now offer scholarships to Caribbean students to study abroad as well, providing opportunities that challenge remnants of an elitist system of disadvantage.

We can now confidently speak of the end of education as fostering inequality. It opens up further opportunities to the previously disadvantaged, and is an important lever of social progress and economic development, with the goal of transforming Caribbean societies into becoming more competitive, innovative, and creating greater mobility.
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