LSE Institute of Global Policy
More and Better Education to Face New Inequalities
Enrico Letta
Dean, School of International Affairs, Sciences Po
President, Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA)

Access to education has always been one of the main criteria for assessing levels of inequality and inclusiveness in a community. Numerous studies have focused on the topic in the past. It is interesting to highlight the impact that increased global mobility has had and is having in this field.

Due to major changes over the last two decades the resulting growth in mobility opportunities has profoundly altered the world of education, both in secondary and above all in university education. Before the mobility revolution that began years ago and which has accelerated since the beginning of the century, the option of studying abroad was limited to a small number of people. There were few exceptions to the widespread norm of cycles of studies carried out in the local area or at the furthest elsewhere within the same country.

The times we are living in have radically changed this pattern. Nowadays there is a global education market that is no longer exclusively available to small minorities or limited to individual countries. A subset of educational supply and demand has been formed on a global scale and is rapidly and continuously growing. It travels the planet breaking down the limits and barriers of the past and even provoking competition between distant and different locations. Something which was once limited to only a few people, today extends on a global scale like never before.

There are many causes for this revolution. These dynamics are strongly affected by the growth of the middle classes in the countries that would once have been called developing countries, thanks to which today, for the first time in history, half of the world’s population is part of the middle class, a demographic event unimaginable only a generation ago. These countries, in addition to now being widely developed, have led the main growth in demand for education on a global scale. The main acceleration started in Asia in many of its largest countries, but now other countries in Africa and Latin America are also contributing to this impressive growth. It is mainly middle and upper middle classes with increasing purchasing power who are revolutionising and have already partially radically changed the world education market. They have certainly altered the criteria and facilitated the creation of quantitatively and qualitatively very different options than those available last century.

There are many causes for this revolution. These dynamics are strongly affected by the growth of the middle classes in the countries that would once have been called developing countries, thanks to which today, for the first time in history, half of the world’s population is part of the middle class, a demographic event unimaginable only a generation ago.

On the other hand, the increased ease of travel is undoubtedly one of the main drivers for the birth and growth of this new global phenomenon. The opening up of borders within the European Union and the birth and development of low-cost flights have undoubtedly been two impressively effective drivers in increasing the number of people with mobility opportunities. In just over twenty years, the free movement of people has become a reality in Europe and has perhaps been the most important success of the entire integration process. The impact has been so impressive because it is not simply limited to making the different European countries accessible to other European citizens. The idea of the Union as a single area in which people are able to freely move around in, making it possible to consider living one’s life or parts of it in another country other than one’s own, has now been consolidated. Migration affected European countries in the past, but it was different to in the current area of free movement in the EU born of the Schengen Agreement. Intra-European migration in the past was usually permanent movements, one-way tickets, so to speak. It mainly concerned migration of low-skilled workers for work reasons. The current intra-European movement is very different. It generally depends on the type of population and the countries affected. It is much more flexible and potentially fragmented. The movement rarely becomes permanent, just as today people’s working lives are based on flexibility.

In this sense, the European area fits well with the very flexible way in which people – especially the younger generations – live today. The possibility of living in another country, not far from one’s country of origin for a short period of time, with the idea of returning or moving to another country when life choices make it possible, represents an opportunity for freedom that exceeds the constraints of borders from the past; especially during the second half of the twentieth century. Mobility has become a mass phenomenon, especially in Europe, which affects more and more people and which has above all become multi-generational. It often concerns young people, but it is growing even amongst older people, especially pensioners. And, of course, the number of people working in countries other than their countries of origin is growing. The area of free movement is becoming increasingly popular among the European population as a way to broaden horizons and of opportunities.

It is therefore natural that the younger generations are the most natural beneficiaries of this enlargement. And it is natural that studying is the first activity to be affected and revolutionised by these changes. The numbers speak for themselves: according to UNESCO data, the number of international university students in the world rose from 800,000 in 1975 to over 4 million in 2013.

The application of the principles of free movement from the Schengen Agreement and the European Union’s Single Market are probably enough alone to account for this increased mobility in studies. But there is no doubt that the great success of the Erasmus programme – 9 million young people involved over thirty years – is the other factor which has triggered something which has become a mass movement. The use of this term “mass” must not, however, be misleading. The Erasmus programme is limited to small numbers of young people when compared to the entire populations of our countries. However, in absolute terms, it has affected millions of people in Europe and even outside Europe. And above all it is something very visible, which has managed to reach the public awareness and make education something internationally available, no longer seen as something exceptional for only a privileged few or for brave pioneers. Erasmus has made something normal that was previously seen as a rarity.

In addition to the reasons mentioned above, there is undoubtedly another factor that has driven such impressive growth of a global education space. The world of work has changed and today’s education can no longer follow the same patterns it has always followed. This is not the time or place to examine these changes in depth. However, it is clear that work and jobs have changed so much that very different forms of preparation are needed. Greater flexibility, more adaptability to move between different sectors, the impact of new technologies and the need for ever greater multilingualism are just some of the challenges that new training schemes need to adapt to. In particular, one of the most significant transformations concerns the system of organisation by study subject which is being totally called into question. Twentieth-century education was built around specialisations that began with secondary studies and continued on to university studies with insurmountable walls between one subject and another. It was unimaginable, except in exceptional cases, to consider multi-subject study paths on a large scale.

Today the trend goes in the opposite direction. The world of work, and life itself, today push for ever greater interactions between different sectors and subjects. The need to combine knowledge and make this combination bear fruit is one of the new, fascinating, but complex challenges of the new world of education.

As a result, modern training is moving towards innovations in which openness, flexibility and mobility are fundamental.

It is precisely these characteristics that define the challenge of renewal, but simultaneously the great risk of social exclusion and the growth of inequalities brought on by the rapid changes in the world of education. Though it is true that a global market is forming based on a growing demand for higher education with a consequent growth in courses meeting these challenges; it is also true that the distance between this world and that of mass education, based only nationally or locally, is also growing impressively.

There are many causes for this revolution

It is no longer a question of the historical separation between a very small minority and the majority of young people in different countries; between the exception and the rule; between a small number of individuals – the cosmopolitan and globalised elite who had access to advanced education and studies abroad – and the mass of all the other students on the other hand. 1% of the population on the one hand and 99% on the other hand, if we were to massively simplify. This used to be the norm.

Today the world of education is moving towards a separation between students who take advantage of the new opportunities offered by mobility and the rest who do not. But the first group, those who are mobile, are no longer the tiny minority of the past. They are becoming a more substantial part of the world of education, while remaining a minority. Large and growing, but still a minority. In most countries throughout the world the majority of students stick to educational paths that are not very open, not at all mobile and extremely rooted in the local area.

The futures of people emerging from these two different worlds is increasingly divergent. It is difficult for the type of training received, whether it be a modern education, open to innovation and movement or training lacking these characteristics, not to have an impact on the rest of your life. Inequalities will grow instead of shrinking if the education world fails to meet the challenges of this growing gap. And the inequalities that are created or accentuated while training are the most rigid and difficult to break down later.

The most ambitious, and at the same time, most necessary goal nowadays is setting ourselves the enormous challenge of creating an educational system capable of facing these forms of inequality and providing equal opportunities to truly everyone in our societies.

As I have tried to describe before, it is not just a question of increasing the number of students who have access to modern, mobile and innovative forms of education. If it were this simple, we would be able to successfully fight inequalities. The issue is much more complex. In our societies, due to the impact of new technologies, increasing automation and imbalances due to globalisation, the bar has been raised for the training requirements necessary to obtain and perform certain types of jobs. Automation has destroyed and is destroying large numbers of decent, secure jobs which required little training. The crisis the middle classes in western countries are experiencing is partly due to these issues. And the violence of the social upheaval affecting our societies is partly the consequence of the speed with which these changes have arrived, depriving the welfare systems and the world of work of the transition times necessary to adapt to these changes. A sense of insecurity, growing nostalgia for the past, a feeling of inadequacy with respect to the requirements necessary to keep up with the changes in progress, are all issues that can be explained by these changes and the speed with which they are happening.

Therefore, if the world of work is changing so rapidly, it is not enough that only a minority of students – even though this is now fairly large – can access the most advanced, mobile and innovative forms of education. Because the gap that is created is becoming wider than those of the past and because the majority of students are in danger of finding themselves trapped in a tunnel of frustrations and inadequacies, given that it does not seem like the transformations underway in the labour market are set to change.

Added to this is another fundamental consideration which is the cost of education. If we look at the matter in the extremely simplistic terms of two large training groups – one mobile and innovative, the other traditional and domestic – then the question of cost takes on great importance. The average cost of educational courses for the first group is on average much greater than for the second. And the cost factor obviously has a significant impact on the social inequalities that are generated as a result.

The challenge of creating an educational system

This growing division is also partly the explanation for the radicalisation present in societies. Frustration leads to rejection and growth of resentment against the system. Some recent political trends which are now deeply rooted in the societies of advanced countries can also be explained by looking at these changes.

The most ambitious, and at the same time, most necessary goal nowadays is setting ourselves the enormous challenge of creating an educational system capable of facing these forms of inequality and providing equal opportunities to truly everyone in our societies.

First of all, we need to recognise what a central position the problem has. This would already appear to be a complex and ambitious challenge in itself. It is then necessary to remove the prejudices and inertia which lead to setting up tired schemes and giving the same old answers, relevant to a time long in the past that, as I have tried to argue, has nothing to do with the challenges that technological innovation and globalisation hold today.

National and multifaceted responses based on public policies need to be arranged, both in the fields of education and fiscal and social policies. Above all, we need to build responses that can bring the public and the private sectors together effectively, because it is clear that the scale of the challenge is so great that this is the only way there can be any chance of yielding positive results.

Everyone needs to be involved. It is European countries and in general those in the West that are the most affected and it is they who need to be the main drivers for change. For this reason, the G7, the organisation that represents most of all what was once called the Western world, seems like it could be, together probably with the EU and the OECD, to be a major player in an huge effort to address these new and growing inequalities.