Does educational stratification put toffs at the top?

Social mobility at the top: Why are elites self-reproducing?

by Elise S. Brezis (Azrieli Center for Economic Policy, Israel) & Joël Hellier (EQUIPPE, Univ. de Lille, Bar-Ilan University, Israel and LEMNA, Univ. de Nantes, France)


This paper proposes an explanation for the decrease in social mobility that has occurred in the last two decades in number of advanced economies, as well as for the divergence in mobility dynamics across countries. Within an intergenerational framework, we show that a two-tier higher education system with standard and elite universities generates social stratification, high social immobility and self-reproduction of the elite. Moreover, we show that the higher the relative funding for elite universities, the higher the elite self-reproduction, and the lower social mobility. We also analyse the impacts of changes in the weight of the elite and of the middle class upon social mobility. Our findings provide theoretical bases for the inverted-U profile of social mobility experienced in several countries since World War II and to the ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ relating social mobility to inequality.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-01-10, and was of particular interest to me, primarily since I spent my formative years attending primary and secondary school in an area of the South Wales valleys prioritised by the European Union for what was then termed as ‘Objective One funding’ in recognition of its lack of social inclusion and opportunity – a position precipitated by the closure of the coalmines in the 1980s, which deprived thousands of their livelihoods. It stored up numerous social problems for the future, primarily owing to the absence of a cogent plan to replace and maintain the community’s employment following the completion of the area’s pit closures in the late 1980s, but was exacerbated, following the removal of these employment opportunities, by the deeply-embedded mindset of the coalfield communities vis-à-vis academic and/or cultural education, symptomatic of that seen in the movie ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000). Although disliked, inequality was largely accepted almost as a fait-accompli. For the Conservative Party of the 1980s, as Peter Dorey has argued, it was regarded as inherently necessary and positive in contemporary Thatcherite political thought (Dorey, 2010).Economic inequality became deeply clear from the 1908s in Britain


Citing the fact that society has been ‘constructed’ since medieval times, enforcing people’s ‘place’, whether it be as a member of the Feudal society or as a designated member of a particular ‘social class’, scholars have traditionally argued that inequalities have primarily been enforced according the socially-assigned opportunities during childhood. In the UK, the frequent use of the vernacular such as ‘toff’ and ‘poshboy’ by those of the opposition Labour Party (despite many of them, too, having received an elite education) in response to the perception of the British government’s inability to connect with the grassroots, picks up on the main concerns of this paper, that being that the current social and educational construct in many advanced European economies helps to perpetuate the development of an elite social class who, despite forming the smallest percentage of the nation’s overall population, receive the greatest power and highest chances of success.

This paper claims that the stratification of universities according to ‘elite’ and ‘secondary’ categories propagates an inequality that helps nurture the protection and development of an ‘elite’ through better resources afforded to those universities according to their finances and staffing. The transition of graduates to a higher social class, facilitated by their better education, and affording them with the skills maybe not available to their parents to secure a middle-class, white collar job enforces, at least superficially, the so-called ‘New right’ rhetoric of an ‘upwardly mobile’ society, but one which is fundamentally and inherently contradictory.

The methods used by the authors to convey their point are very persuasive.  The use of the intergenerational earnings elasticity model, with the use of gender and parental income as the variable helps to demonstrate the extent of the ‘elite construction’ which is the main theme of this paper, and is used as a method to measure intergenerational social mobility. Their findings suggest a constant increase in intergenerational social mobility in the countries where the so-called ‘dual’ (i.e. elite and secondary) education exists, namely France, the UK and the USA, but are contrasted with Nordic countries that do not have this system to show that such a trend does not exist here.  However, they are also keen to emphasise that a range of factors could have contributed to these changes, with sociological factors after the Second World War being cited as a major example of changes to the demographic of society in the post-1945 period, such as the number of blue collar workers entering the elite class in the USA during the 1960s being double that of countries such as Britain, France and Germany, although after the 1980s, the extent of their social mobility was severely decreasing. (Brezis & Hellier, 2013:6)

Yet the authors believe that the growth of tertiary education is possibly one of the largest reasons to explain this shift, with this form of education accounting for 60% of students in the present period, compared with 10% in the post-war period, representing an increase of 525% in enrolment to the ‘non-elitist colleges’ in the USA between 1959-2008, and an increase of 250% in elite colleges for the same period.  (Brezis & Hellier, 2013: 7)  Coupled with this of course is the fact that elite universities (Ivy League), particularly in the USA, have become more selective in their recruitment, recruiting only those with the highest grades and thus creating a small student body, and in turn spending treble the money per head  compared to secondary universities.  On the other hand,  recruitment to secondary universities has increased, largely, according to what the authors believe to be a more lenient admissions policy, but one that has led to a larger student body, and less money per head being spent on students.( Brezis & Hellier, 2013, 8)

However, the authors are also keen to correlate educational attainment with family background.  Citing the fact that at its highest, children of upper class families were 40 times more likely to enter an elite educational institution compared to those from lower social classes clearly demonstrates this class divide, and that, to a large extent, this divide is possibly ever-increasing.  (Brezis & Hellier, 2013, 8)

Using the idea that a two-tier education system prevailing in many advanced economies could be considered as a major source pertaining to rising inequality and reduced social mobility, this paper asserts that stratification of universities has also affected the level of spending per head on students, and thus influenced their educational opportunities and attainment. Declaring that the so-called ‘elite universities’ tend to recruit students from the higher social classes, it implicitly suggests that those from the lower social orders are disadvantaged at the recruitment stage, despite possessing requisite, identical and in some cases better evidence of academic attainment. Although the latter issue remains controversial, the authors have certainly identified a phenomenon that the universities concerned attempt to rebuff, and policymakers try to ‘level out’, but one that remains virtually impossible to eradicate, especially in view of the fact that many of the elite universities are in receipt of significant funds from rich benefactors, many of whom are alumni.

Those with the most power in society have appeared to be in the minority - a position influenced by growing affluence in the higher classes


The authors have engaged in a very deep analysis of the social class and its impact on entry into elite universities, and have also clearly shown the divergence between social class and educational attainment at university level. Drawing on a large range of quantitative methods and materials, this research clearly attests to the ‘Gatsby Curve’ pertaining to social mobility and inequality, demonstrating that this is relevant across several nations in developed economies.

To further amplify the impact of this research, perhaps the authors could consider exploring the difficulties faced by universities today in terms of marketing themselves to students? In the UK, and also in the US, this has become especially pertinent over recent years, and has, superficially at least, made the distinction of ‘elite universities’ more blurred, particularly in view of the spike in tuition fees implemented in the UK by the Conservative-Liberal coalition. Tied with these was the option for universities to level fees within a prescribed range, leaving many universities, even those considered among the ‘secondary’ level, to charge higher fees to avoid enforcing, or indeed accepting a position both statistically and in the public mind, as a lower-level institution. In fact, this position does raise deeper questions concerning the definition of ‘elite’ institutions. Is it based on its historical tradition, research output (as is often used as the arbiter of much government funding), student satisfaction, quality of teaching, or student attainment after graduation?

Additionally, in an age where having staff whose capabilities extend beyond the traditional realms of research and teaching has become ever-more necessary in view of the growing commercialisation of universities in the twenty-first century, with its leaders becoming more financially-savvy, and turning more towards international outreach to attract large external funding, perhaps the authors could explore whether they think the growing commercialisation of universities has deepened the class divide, thus forcing many away from pursuing a university education on the grounds of cost, or whether the growing competition among educational institutions, much of which now has a strong business-orientated approach, especially with the creation, in some universities, of the position of ‘Chief Executive’, will work to level out the ubiquitous class divide.


Dorey, Peter (2010) British Conservatism : The Philosophy and Politics of Inequality , London : I.B. Tauris.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson in the livery of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club (crica 1986)

David Cameron and Boris Johnson in the livery of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club (crica 1986)


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