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2 December 2022

Relational inequality in a (deeply) educationally polarised society: feasible strategies in the longer term

In this extended commentary (largely concerning the UK), we go beyond material inequality to focus on the relational and epistemic inequality that has developed with the knowledge economy since the 1980s. The ‘massification’ of HE – nearly half of those under 45 have been to university – has combined with the widespread collapse of routine manufacturing and white-collar employment to make the UK a polarised society. Michael Sandel and David Goodhart underline a felt lack of respect from those who have benefited from educational expansion, who anyway tended to come from a higher socio-economic background, towards those who ‘missed out’ (Goodhart, 2017, 2020; Sandel, 2020). This psychological Deaths of Despair (Case and Deaton, 2020) pain was exemplified by the (polarised) reactions to Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ comment; and Gidron and Hall capture it in perceptions of declining social status (Gidron and Hall, 2017, 2020; Gidron, Adams and Horne, 2020). Over time, it has become a polarisation across the various arenas of ‘lived’ life. The workplace, cities, residential neighbourhoods, social networks, families and educational institutions are increasingly sorted by whether one (and, with assortative mating, one’s partner) has a university education. More recently, it has been central to electoral realignment, and identities have been shaped in the growth of populism.

This picture of felt relational inequality across broad polarised groups is unintentionally reinforced by a quite different way in the knowledge economy. This is in how graduates relate to each other, notably in the workplace: in particular, as Blundell, Green and Jin (2022, hereafter BGJ) explain, the fundamental technological/organisational breakthrough in the US relates to the decentralisation of advanced companies and organisations and their graduate- and ICT-intensive workplaces. These workplaces are characterised by limited management, and de facto group decision-making; employees typically have specialist competences and work autonomy. What matters are the analytical skills to use and integrate relevant ICT software and the social and emotional skills for highly educated people to work together (Gratton, 2014). It is these skills that are largely acquired through learning and interaction in a university environment.

Because much non-graduate work in the US and UK is in less-skilled services, this underlines the current deep social polarisation in these countries.

Where do we go from here? Sandel (2020) asks for a ‘redistribution of esteem’ from graduates to non-graduates. Following Brennan and Pettit (2007), we pay attention in this commentary to what is feasible; and a redistribution of esteem – requiring the humility of a Sandel – seems unlikely to pass the feasibility test. Sandel appears to suggest that those who support the present HE massification are meritocrats, with the implication they believe that further expansion would fail because of the lack of able-enough non-graduates to merit HE.

We argue here for both a radical transformation of HE, with a perhaps a third of students gaining vocationally oriented two-year subdegrees, and in that context a move over coming decades to a much higher HE participation rate than at present (even perhaps in the long run for it to become as normal as high school graduation is currently). If we are serious about a society of mutual respect and relational equality, this seems to be the broad strategic direction, as will be argued. BGJ point the way: they argue that the US has been the technological leader. The UK is then the follower, in effect copying the American technological/organisational breakthroughs described above. At a very simple level, given the already available technology, its application to new sectors and markets in the UK, while requiring sophisticated modification and effective managers and entrepreneurs, should be achievable as the graduate population expands without a decline in the graduate wage premium (rather along the lines of factor price equalisation). BGJ also show the constancy of the graduate wage premium in the UK from the early 1990s to the present,

As we suggest at greater length below, effective major expansion of HE is feasible, but requires radical reorganisation of the UK’s HE system – and it will take much more than a decade (massification has taken several decades). But it is reinforced by BGJ’s demonstration of the constancy of the UK graduate premium, as well as their analytical argument. It seems to be the only feasible long-term route towards relational and epistemic equality.

By contrast, most work on inequality by social scientists has focused on material inequality, especially of income and wealth. Piketty, notably and powerfully, set out the very substantial increases in income and wealth in recent decades of those in the highest centiles of the income and wealth distribution (Piketty and Goldhammer, 2014). Much of the resulting policy discussion has been on how taxes might be used to bring about material redistribution. We certainly share the importance of material redistribution. But as we see it, Piketty’s analysis has led the debate astray, important though his contribution was, in two ways. In this commentary on the IFS Deaton Review, the two parts of the title of the influential book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Case and Deaton (2020), indicate our key differences. We expand on each.

Cite this as:

McNeil, A. and Soskice, D. (2022), ‘Relational inequality in a (deeply) educationally polarised society: feasible strategies in the longer term’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,