Education is a political issue. This is why.

This, “For many poor students, leap to college ends in a hard fall” is a very well-executed piece in The New York Times. It follows three talented, but terribly disadvantaged, girl students who make it into university but then manage to go no further, and it shows why education doesn’t always lead to social mobility; in fact, it very often holds poor people down while further elevating middle-class and upper-class people. How education systems can actively work against the poor is an area of injustice I find deeply concerning because it is frequently ignored.

By now, almost every policy-maker can acknowledge the returns to education as a social investment, but what they don’t always appreciate are the ways in which poor people find the path through education more difficult to navigate than do students from more wealthy families. Not because they’re somehow less canny, but because the institution is rigged against them. The concept of not being able to afford university fees is something most people can grasp, but the other kinds of barriers poor kids face in getting an education can easily look like disinterest, a lack of motivation, and mindless self-sabotage from the outside. This is dangerous when it comes to policy-making.

Reading that article by Jason DeParle I am struck by the number of times a lack of social capital (ie. inside knowledge and the prerogative to use it) disadvantages these three students as they try to succeed. Social capital is a type of capital that tends to get inherited and locked down by class. It can be difficult to observe because it won’t show up in a tax return. My own single-parent family lived below the poverty line while I was going through high school and university but we had one big advantage – my mother had come from a well-to-do family and she had the social capital from those beginnings to know how to navigate the system and to feel entitled to do so when push came to shove. I don’t want to down-play how difficult I found my time growing up in poverty or how lasting its effects have been for me, but social capital is a type of advantage I’ve seen up close and been gifted.. and  I will never under-estimate it.

Some of the big policy messages coming out of that article in the New York Times include:

  • low-income kids lack social capital which would otherwise help them navigate educational institutions and their place in them;
  • low-income kids need to earn money while also studying full-time;
  • low-income kids often have to leave their community and family to go to a good university and therefore encounter emotional disadvantage;
  • low-income kids often provide the unpaid care services their families require at the expense of their own education and needs (and low-income families are less able to pay for therapies they need and so rely more heavily on unpaid care work in their own families, plus, being poor is stressful and physically depleting);
  • low-income kids try not to achieve too much academically in order to protect their families from further expenses and a sense of rejection;
  • low-income kids are expected to adapt to the culture and lifestyle of high-income kids when they attend university;
  • low-income kids are disadvantaged by not being able to afford the extra-curricula help that high-income kids receive with their education;
  • low-income kids go into debt to pay off their education but with the risk of lower chances of graduating and consequently lower chances of gaining a high salary job to pay off their debt;
  • low-income kids are more likely to see education as a ‘selfish’ pursuit on their part; and,
  • low-income kids lack a safety net when things go wrong.

And here are some recent Australian examples where similar experiences are holding poor children back in education – “Children hide poverty to protect parents, study finds”:

”Their demands were incredibly modest,” the nation’s leading poverty researcher, Peter Saunders of the University of NSW, said.

The study is the first in Australia to hear children’s accounts of what it is like growing up poor. Almost 100 young people from 11 to 17 were interviewed, as well as teachers and parents.

The children’s tendency to deny wanting what other children ordinarily had was a way to ”protect themselves from the pain of missing out and their parents from the anguish of having to say no”, the report said

The children felt keenly that their parents were not respected by school staff. Many were bored by and disengaged from the curriculum, and they were frustrated with teachers who could not maintain discipline and didn’t seem to care. The children appreciated enthusiastic teachers and meaningful curriculum but ”this type of opportunity for learning was too often missing from young people’s accounts of school”.

The increasing trend for schools to impose ”user pays” levies for some activities was also detrimental. One parent reported her fury at the discovery, after four years, that the school had a fund to help. Professor Saunders said the schemes were not widely advertised for fear that demand would outstrip supply.

And, “Aussie school children left hungry report”:

Ms Chambers said some parents were keeping their children home from school on days they couldn’t afford to put food in their lunchbox, and often missed meals themselves to ensure their family was fed.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: economics, education, gender & feminism, parenting, social justice

Tags: , , ,

12 replies

  1. This is such an excellent piece! (Yours, blue milk, I still have to read the original piece.) It really surprises me sometimes at uni how different perspective and situation is to that of the majority of my friends, many of whom are supported by their parents, or still live at home, or have lived in the city all their lives, or haven’t even had a part time job. And I’m still relatively privileged in that I’m white and my parents have degrees and I don’t have a disability.
    Arghh, and it makes me so mad when other people I know go on and on about how utterly unfair it is that Aboriginal students get more Abstudy (and payments for higher degrees and stuff) than non-Aboriginal students. Grrrrr.

  2. And now that I have read the article, I would like to express how profoundly grateful I am for the centrelink money I get and the fact that I was able to get Australian citizenship and thus deferable HECS fees. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. From the privileged end, it astonished me to discover just how much harder it was for poorer kids to stay at uni. Everything was harder, from the small things like not having anyone pick them up from the bus depot when they went home for the “holidays” (when even rich white kids like me worked our butts off), through to the really obvious things like financial support running the other way – kids at uni having to support their families financially because they were relatively rich thanks to student loans.
    Which is another big thing – I’m well off enough that money (and other support) flows from older to younger generations barring exceptional circumstances. A lot of poorer kids need to be successful and quickly so they can support their siblings, parents and grandparents.
    One of the more interesting bits of social capital is just having enough engagement with the university system to know that some degrees pay better than others, and that there are “hobby degrees” that rarely lead to careers that pay enough to make someone middle class (let alone support a family as middle class). Arts, music, theatre…. you name it. People doing well with those degrees tend to have a lot of social capital before they start.
    And then there are narrow pyramid careers like photography and architecture that seem all professional and upper class, but only 1% of the graduates make decent money and the rest struggle, often in intermittent work. Just encouraging students to think about the bottom 50% of graduates can be very revealing – a mediocre accounting or engineering graduate is likely to be comfortably off where a mediocre arts or science grad is going to be working as “other”…

  4. If it weren’t for HECS I’d never be able to have been able to afford to go to uni.

    • HECS was huge for me too, Purrdence. It (or whatever it’s called now) is also the only way my daughter is going to be able to do the course that she wants to do. The same will probably be true for my son once he finishes his Transition to Work disability support program.

  5. I wish deferrable HECS were available to Australian Permanent Residents as well, though. After having to pay three grand up front for my first semester, I tried to arrange getting citizenship very quickly, which fortunately worked. I can imagine there are people who aren’t so lucky.

  6. This is all a huge issue for Aboriginal students, in particular. An Aboriginal kid with an ambition, ability or talent of any kind is highly likely to need to move away from family centres and support networks to pursue it. I’m sure I don’t have to remind everyone what a history there is of that kind of separation working out really, really badly. A scholarship would only be a very small beginning towards making achievement under such stressful circumstances likely.

  7. Oh! good post.Not Only education is a political issue but also a dirty education is a political issue.That’s main cause poverty & corruption.

  8. Jo – Once you have permanent residency you can get citizenship though can’t you? And since we allow dual citizenship now I don’t think its too big a request to ask of people in order to qualify for HECS.
    I do think there should however be an equivalent scheme for TAFE courses though. There’s just as much reason to have a deferred loan scheme for trades training as there is for university degrees.
    The downside to the introduction of HECS has been that many of the company funded university scholarships seem to have disappeared and that burden has shifted from private to public funding.

  9. Chris: there is a delay between getting permanent residency and being eligible for citizenship. It depends on the grounds for citizenship but includes things like: 4 years continuous residency in Australia including at least 12 months on a PR visa; and absences from Australia totaling no more than 90 days in the 12 months before applying. Look for form 1300t at if you are interested.
    Further, while we allow dual citizenship, some countries do not even when their citizenship was obtained by birth, or first: they strip their citizenship when a citizen voluntarily takes another one. I know several German citizens who remain Australian permanent residents for this reason: they would like to be Australian citizens but are unwilling to forgo their right of return to Germany. Spain is similar, I think. (I’ve also known a few eligible people who don’t want to be Australian citizens for other reasons: most often, they object to compulsory electoral enrollment.)
    So, the short answer is that by no means all permanent residents are eligible to become citizens by the anticipated start of their degree, and there are some reasons why you may be eligible to and not wish to.
    ETA: “qualify for HECS” isn’t exactly right. Permanent residents qualify for it: they get the same significantly reduced tuition rates that citizens pay, ie HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme, with the contribution being the government paying the university for a chunk of their tuition). International students pay all that tuition themselves, international fees are a lot higher. It’s that permanent residents don’t qualify for HECS-HELP, ie the loan of the remainder to be paid back later. Only citizens qualify for that. Nor do permanent residents get the 10% discount on the domestic tuition fees that citizens get if they elect to pay upfront rather than take the loan.

  10. So, the short answer is that by no means all permanent residents are eligible to become citizens by the anticipated start of their degree, and there are some reasons why you may be eligible to and not wish to.

    As you explain permanent residents are already quite heavily subsidised by the government. And the HECS loans impose a burden on the government. There’s perhaps some edge conditions for people newly arrived in the country. But for those who haven’t bothered or don’t want to get citizenship I don’t think its unreasonable to restrict access to the loan scheme – its a financial trade off that they can make.
    If people really are concerned about returning to the country they came from it brings into question the financial return that the government may get from subsidising their education. Since if they do their degree and then return to their home country not only will they have received a subsidised education, but they will also not have to pay back the HECS loan – and the country is likely to get little benefit from the skills they have acquired.

  11. Love this post. It’s SO important, and so poorly understood.
    In my teacher training last year, we discussed cultural capital (knowledge) vs social capital. In my tutorial, lots of people could not see how social capital could possibly be worth more than cultural capital (mostly younger people, but definitely all people in possession of a great deal of social capital). I also don’t think they were convinced by either the arguments in our tutorial or the course itself. So from my tutorial class alone, I can tell you there’s at least a half dozen more PE, English & Maths teachers out there who have no concept of the value of social capital, and therefore the cost of not having it. Given its importance in education, I can’t help feeling that it deserves more than half a tutorial in February within a teaching degree.


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