Poverty major cause of education gap, study reveals

19 January 2017

Laying exclusive focus on eradicating gender inequality in education in the world’s poorest countries might not be the most ideal way to increase participation in schools, two University of Cambridge educationalists have warned.

The warning has been issued in response to the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Last year, education experts lauded the UN for its push to improve access to higher education in the world’s poorest countries. It was the first time that the UN had given itself targets to increase participation in tertiary-level education. Formerly, it had focused almost exclusively on making sure that children around the world had the chance to gain a decent education at primary or secondary school, while efforts around post-18 education were centred on technical or vocational training.

By including a goal of achieving “equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university” as part of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN is striving to boost university attendance across the globe, particularly for women. However, the UN’s focus on eradicating gender inequality in education – a cause championed by Michelle Obama, America’s outgoing first lady, among others – could cause governments to lose sight of more pernicious educational inequalities, two University of Cambridge educationalists have warned after a study.

The study was undertaken by Sonia Ilie and Pauline Rose, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. According to the study, educational inequalities concerning poverty are far greater than those regarding gender. Using data from the Young Lives project, a University of Oxford longitudinal study tracking about 12,000 children born in 1994 over their entire education, Dr Ilie and Professor Rose found that women’s participation in higher education often exceeded men’s, although the participation gap remained substantial when income was considered. For instance, only 2% of Ethiopia’s poorest fifth of male 19-year-olds are in higher education, but 9 per cent of its poorest female 19-year-olds are. Meanwhile, 22 per cent of the richest 19-year-old men and 30 per cent of the richest 19-year-old women are at university. Income was also a key factor in Vietnam, where around 8% of the poorest 19-year-old men are in higher education compared with 14% for women from low-income families, the Young Lives data showed. In comparison, participation rates for richer 19-year-olds stood at a fairly healthy 48% and 56% for men and women, respectively.

“We need to keep on focusing on gender inequalities, but it is clear that the gaps in educational outcomes are far larger when you compare different income groups,” said Dr Ilie, who presented her results at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s annual research conference in Wales last month. Those educational inequalities are particularly apparent at the primary school level, where income was far more important than gender in determining whether children went to school or not, said Dr Ilie, who added: “The gender gap is starting to get a lot smaller.”

Offering quality universal education was particularly important for improving access to university as only 5 per cent of those not enrolled in school by the age of eight made it into higher education, the Young Lives information showed. “We also need to focus on what is happening in schools – it’s not enough to simply master basic numeracy and literacy as you need to acquire a good grasp of higher-level maths to improve your chance of getting into university,” she concluded.