Educational inequality in Europe

Social atlas of europeWhat are the patterns of educational inequality in Europe? To help answer this question, The Social Atlas of Europe (Policy Press, 2014) by Danny Dorling, Dimitris Ballas and Benjamin Hennig provides a fascinating visual overview of inequalities across our continent using maps and cartograms which represent countries and regions by population size rather than land mass.

The authors’ aim is to inform debates about the future of Europe and to promote greater cohesion and sustainability rather than a return to old divisions, national stereotypes and local conflicts. In their own words:

“We hope the work presented in this social atlas will do more to enhance feelings of social cohesion and solidarity among the peoples of Europe. We have tried to achieve this by highlighting important disparities and inequalities and, at the same time, reminding Europeans how much we have in common and the potential for what can be achieved if we move away from a ‘nation-state’ mentality and work, rather, towards a socio-economically and environmentally sustainable common European future.”

These maps reveal some wide disparities across Europe, not least in education. So, for example, we learn that, based on 2013 data:

19 million people over 15 in Europe have had no formal schooling: there is a hundredfold difference in the proportion of people in this category by country. Turkey and Portugal have among the highest proportion at over 10% with Denmark and Norway at the other end of the spectrum with 0.14% and 0.2%.

106 million people in Europe are educated to primary level at most: this is 21% of people over 15 with the highest proportion 16 times the lowest. Turkey (41%) and Portugal (44%) have high proportions, but so does Denmark at 40.8%. Norway has the lowest proportion in this category at 2.8%.

300 million people in Europe are educated to secondary level at most: 58% of people over 15. Hungary and Albania have the highest proportions at 80% with Iceland and Portugal the lowest at 34%, Denmark scores the fourth lowest at 40%.

87 million people across Europe have university degrees: representing 17% of people over 15. Ireland has the highest proportion at 30.5%, Italy and Albania among the lowest at 9.3% – a threefold difference with significant variation from the average.

These data give us a sense of the complex demographics of educational participation across Europe and to fully understand the economic impact of these disparities we need to know more about the different qualification requirements of the various local labour markets. However, as labour mobility across Europe has increased, it is clear that those with lower levels of qualification will be increasingly disadvantaged.

It’s also true that accredited learning and length of time in education are not always the best measures of educational achievement. But with so many professions requiring graduate applicants, people without degrees will find themselves struggling to get onto the first step on the employment ladder.

We also know that too many young adults in Europe have low levels of numeracy and literacy as measured in the OECD’s survey of adult skills (2012) which showed the UK as the worst performing European country in both measures with twice as high a proportion of its young people having low literacy or numeracy skills than other European countries such as Finland and Denmark.

The most shocking fact is that 125 million people over 15 across Europe have no experience of secondary level education. This is a larger cohort than those who have university degrees, suggesting a massive under-investment in education leading to an under-use of human potential across our continent. Simply reversing that 125 / 87 ratio would require at least an 8 year education investment programme involving a cohort the size of Poland (38 million) including a concerted effort to promote adult and lifelong learning and an expansion of secondary and tertiary education where it is least developed.

If we don’t start to tackle this waste of human talent, we will continue to suffer from the negative effects of unequal economic development and a widening gap between rich and poor across our continent.

See also:

Project Hope: for a democratic Europe (April 2016)

Education: the universal human right (May 2015)

Choose education not catastrophe (November 2013)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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