In a world of growing inequality, driven by rising global cities and declining regional hinterlands, how can universities foster greater equality? What scope do they have?

Global political economy isn’t everything, and global forces play out differently from nation to nation. These forces are nuanced by politics and culture. Yet global political economy is also a single system that has unleashed parallel transformations in all nations.

The growth of economic inequality, as measured by income and wealth, began in the early 1980s (the Reagan years) in the United States. It has now reached staggering, record-breaking proportions. According to Credit Suisse, the world’s richest 42 people have the same wealth as the poorest 3.7 billion. In 2017, 82% of the growth in global wealth went to the richest 1%. The bottom 50% saw no increase in wealth at all.

This matters not just because poverty is a miserable existence, but because economic inequality translates into unequal social status and power, unequal education and health, and unequal political power.

Everywhere, wealth buys political influence and more unequal wealth generates more unequal influence. Genuine grassroots power is receding. The new mega-rich are passing on their fortunes to their heirs and creating a modernised aristocracy walled off from shared social responsibility and from the people who work for them.

Inequality is increasing each year in more than two-thirds of nations. The exceptions are countries benefiting from rapid economic modernisation and the booming growth of the urban middle class (such as parts of Latin America), or where there is a binding social and political consensus on equality and common social rights, including universal high quality education (for example, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands).

In the latter countries, national government exerts itself to modify the unequalising impact of the global political economy.

For, global political economy, while it quickens the modernisation of emerging countries and thereby creates greater equality between countries on the world scale, also fosters rapidly growing inequality within countries, with no end to this process in sight.

Global cities and the evacuation of value

The process is largely geo-spatial and driven by the increasing weight in all countries of the networked global city – the concentration of economic capital, jobs, skills and talents, social capital, education, knowledge and cultural resources in leading cities networked into a single system at world level.

The key point here is that the evolution of global cities is fostered more by the networked global economy/society than by factors at national level.

Political nativism is merely gestural in the face of this global dynamic. Symbols matter in politics. They affect people’s lives. Artificial national barriers do much damage. However, trying to turn back the rise of the global city is like King Canute telling the tide to stop.

World urbanisation is moving close to 60% and within that the large global cities are increasingly dominant. The centralising and networking logics of globalisation work in tandem across economics, communications, transport, science and services. These logics create universal systems, everyone is affected by the same global forces, but at the same time they favour globally effective agents and savagely push down those who are not.

Inequality is vectored by not only the degree of urbanisation but by the extent to which each urban centre is itself an active and effective player at global level.

While global cities like London, Frankfurt, Shanghai and Singapore rise and rise, economic capital and social value is being emptied out of the medium-sized towns, villages and the rural hinterlands. Global cities are sucking everything into themselves.

There are a few exceptions to the mega-city pattern – for example, smaller wealthy satellites of the global cities such as Oxford or Bristol in the United Kingdom – but the great geo-spatial change since 1970 has been the weakening of the majority of established urban centres (the relative decline of non-urban rural areas goes back much further, to the beginning of industrialisation).

Europe and North America are full of regional cities that were once leading centres of manufacturing or public services but are now struggling to maintain a place. As the regional cities decline, their capacity to sustain their own hinterlands in economic, social and cultural terms also declines.

The further one moves from the hub of the regional cities, the lesser the level of global and national connectivity, the lower the level of economic prosperity, and the lesser the potential for social and geographical mobility. People become place-bound.

In this setting it is not hard to understand the dynamic of nativist political populism, with its promise to sustain ‘us’ by rejecting ‘them’ and restoring traditional hopes and certainties. Brexit, Trump and Le Pen in France draw their main support from declining regions.

In the UK, always more socially and regionally unequal than most of Western Europe, regional inequalities have become further magnified. Using the European Union’s Classification of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS), in 2016, 28 of the UK’s 40 NUTS 2 regions were below EU average income. Average EU income includes Southern and Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile inner West London, with 611% of the EU average income per head, was more than twice as rich as the second wealthiest concentration in Europe, Luxembourg (257%).

The EU identifies three types of region: ‘less developed’ regions with under 75% of average EU GDP per capita, ‘transition’ regions at 75-90%, and ‘more developed’ regions above 90%. In 2016, five of the 40 UK regions were less developed, and 14 more UK regions were transition regions. In the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, West Germany, Austria and Northern Italy almost every region was more developed in 2016.

The low-income regions in the UK were West Wales and the valleys (68%), Cornwall (69%), and Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire, Tees Valley and Durham (all 72%). In income terms these regions were on par with the poorer parts of Southern Italy and Spain.

Here the issues facing higher education are very different to those found in London.

Global universities

High research-intensive universities, to be effective, must be players in the worldwide higher education networks of research cooperation and people mobility. (Here rankings are more a benchmark of global engagement and position than a driver).

‘World-class universities’ or WCUs must also contribute to the innovation economy – governments make that very clear – and they train people paid mega-bucks in the finance and technology sectors.

In these ways WCUs are directly culpable in the political economy of growing inequality, in which the big cities have the action, and, though by no means everyone in global cities is socially and economically advantaged, globally networked persons have the best options and are rising rapidly above others.

Stratified higher education systems mirror and reproduce social hierarchies. Though participation is growing everywhere, the top universities are captured by the upper middle class, the group with the most global options.

At the same time, the culpability of WCUs for inequality should be kept in proportion.

First, by no means everything international in research-intensive universities is socially regressive – far from it. The most important international activity of research universities is research collaboration, which is mostly driven at discipline rather than institutional level and is apparent in the rapid growth of internationally co-authored papers.

The majority of all papers in Europe are co-authored. In 2016, Chinese and American authors co-authored 43,968 papers – a massive zone of collaboration at a time of inter-country tensions.

Global research on climate change, food and water security and epidemic disease benefits all. Perhaps this common good helps the poor more than the rich, who have private shelters.

Some global student mobility fosters democratic opportunity in student sending countries, when it takes the form of scholarship provision for poorer students – though mobility mostly does not take this form, especially where international education provision is primarily commercial.

Primarily advantaged student mobility contributes to greater equality between countries but tends to increase social stratification and inequality within countries.

Fostering understanding of inequality

Second, global universities can and often do foster understanding of inequality and its costs, in their teaching and research. This does not require WCUs to advocate a particular political position, but simply to discuss the world as it is. However, it might mean that the philosophers say one thing, the business school says another. In the longer term much depends on the willingness of economics departments to foster a more critical brand of political economy.

Third, WCUs with their global networking orientation are not principal drivers of national economic and social inequality in the countries where they sit. Inherited social inequalities, global markets, wage determination and tax/spend policy are the larger villains.

It is difficult to see how WCUs could decouple from global cities, with their concentrations of economic and social capital, without great cost to themselves in a lost research role, lost political support and lost reputation. And such a decoupling would not break down social inequality. This is their dilemma. Only student selection gives WCUs some room to move.

In student selection, perhaps the best strategy is that of the University of California (UC), where leading campuses such as Berkeley and UCLA are high-demand universities with a large cohort of academically brilliant school students from which to choose.

Some of these school students are from poorer districts and poorer families. The UC admissions process is able to ensure that a large minority of students at Berkeley and UCLA are from Pell Grant (low-income) families, with a third or more coming from homes where their parents did not enter tertiary education. This broadens social mobility in California to a modest extent.

The highest-demand UK universities could implement such student selection. The political difficulty is the academic dominance of independent private schools at senior school level.

Introduction of California-style entry would be less a case of selecting poor students from a large pool with near maximum scores, more a case of modifying merit criteria. There would be a massive push-back from the independent school constituency.

England’s rabid tabloid newspapers, suddenly discovering the virtues of academic tradition, would be relentlessly on the attack. No one leading university could act alone without doing itself down. They would have to move together. The UK lacks the single system lever that is available to egalitarians in California.

Universities in declining regions

Like global universities in global cities, regional universities face questions about global ambition and international student recruitment within an increasingly unequal national and local environment. But the problems and the possible solutions are rather different.

In poorer regions, outside the global cities, the main role of the university has been to network up. Their national and international linkages open up a much-needed regional window to the world.

Mostly, however, this becomes an escape hatch for a minority of young people. What about those who are left behind, not to mention those – especially in older age groups – who will never associate with higher education? What is the trickle down for them from university research and teaching? With local government under-funded and local businesses faltering or moving away, what is the social responsibility of the university?

In the UK, in university town after university town in the North, the Midlands and Wales, the 2016 Brexit vote revealed the phenomenon of isolated Remain-supporting campuses surrounded by Leave-voting hinterlands. Those who had degrees voted overwhelmingly to stay with the EU. Those who left school early voted Brexit.

In a growing number of regional UK universities, such as those in Lincoln, Keele/Stoke and Sheffield, the polarisation in the referendum has triggered a new focus on programmes linked to local communities.

Some of these initiatives are primarily defensive bridge-building and marketing exercises. Others are about building communities themselves, and go deeper. Some universities want to be locally and globally engaged at the same time. Others are talking in either-or terms. In these early stirrings a new politics of higher education and equality/inequality is emerging.

Simon Marginson is professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

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