Effectively maintained inequality or sponsored mobility? The case of postgraduate education in the UK.

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Nearly all studies of higher education expansion and its effect on inequalities in access focus on initial entry to the academy. There is convincing evidence that despite absolute gains in participation by underrepresented groups, relative inequalities persist, particularly in terms of social class background. Various sociological theories aim to describe and explain this evidence. These suggest that inequalities are ‘maximally maintained’, meaning expansion at one educational level leads to inequalities ‘passing up’ to the next (vertical stratification). Furthermore, inequalities are ‘effectively maintained’, through differentiation within an educational level, such as across types of institution or fields of study (horizontal stratification). Additionally, different educational systems may be characterised as enabling ‘contest’ or ‘sponsored’ mobility.

Sociologists of education have, however, largely neglected the very highest level of education, namely postgraduate study (variously referred to as graduate school or second- and third-cycle study). Although in absolute terms postgraduate student numbers have not expanded as much as undergraduates, in proportional terms recent decades have witnessed exceptionally rapid growth and the playing out of an ‘elite to mass’ shift seen previously at earlier educational levels. As the bachelors degree becomes ubiquitous, the maximally maintained inequality hypothesis predicts increasing inequality in access to postgraduate education.

I will test these ideas on vertical and horizontal stratification using the British case of social class inequalities in access to postgraduate education. The UK is interesting for two reasons. First there is a strong emphasis on field-of-study specialisation at early transition points; and second, despite formal status equality between universities, there are widely-recognised informal hierarchies across institutions evident in student demographics among other things. British data suggest that access to postgraduate study is strongly conditioned by undergraduate field and institution of study. The broader implications of these patterns for social justice and for studies in other countries will be considered.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012
EventSecond International Sociological Association World Forum of Sociology - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Duration: 1 Aug 20124 Aug 2012


ConferenceSecond International Sociological Association World Forum of Sociology
CityBuenos Aires

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