Does education promote social equality?

Quentin Cooper Photo: Terje Heiestad

Does education promote social equality?

On day three of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2014 in Copenhagen, the NordForsk-funded Nordic Centre of Excellence “Justice through education in the Nordic countries (JustEd),” headed by Professor Gunilla Holm, put focus on the significance of education in promoting social equality.

Entitled “The role of education in promoting social justice”, the session was led by renowned science journalist Quentin Cooper and attracted a large number of ESOF participants.

Gunilla HolmProfessor Gunilla Holm, director of the NCoE JustEd, provided some insights into the activities of the centre by discussing the challenges associated with the Nordic educational system, including efforts to ensure social equality through education.

Professor Holm’s presentation set the stage for another member of the JustEd Centre, Professor Lisbeth Lundahl from Umeå University. She presented the example “Swedish education goes to the market”, describing the unfavourable effect of the implementation of free choice of schools on the Swedish educational system.  

Lisbeth Lundahl

Since 1992, the number of pupils enrolled in private schools has greatly increased, giving rise to a quality differentiation between schools because the best pupils and teachers seek entry to the “better” schools. Dr Lundahl ended by emphasising that if the goal is to achieve social equality the Swedish model should not be followed.

The session’s final two speakers were Professor Lois Weis from the University at Buffalo and Professor Michele Schweisfurth from the University of Glasgow, both members of the JustEd Centre’s Advisory Board.

Drawing on her many years of research on the educational sector in the US, Dr Weis spoke compellingly on the “class distinctions” which have arisen from the competition for admission to the top schools. Harvard University receives 35 000 applications each year, which implies that many enterprising parents start planning early on how to get their child into the prestigious school. It is important to stand out and be unique, and Dr Weis got a good laugh from the audience when she related that Harvard even receives telephone calls from parents wanting to know which preschool is best suited for a future Harvard student.

 Michele SchweisfurthDr Schweisfurth’s experience in countries such as Indonesia and Gambia provided the backdrop for her presentation on social equality and education in developing countries and the associated opportunities and challenges.  Dr Schweisfurt pointed out that the number of children not attending school has decreased from 115 million to 57 million in recent years. Even though this is a very positive trend, much remains to be done to ensure that all children are given the opportunity for education.

The event concluded with a number of questions from the audience and a lively discussion, illustrating that social equality and education are both of great interest to a wide range of people.

About the JustED Centre

The Nordic Centre of Excellence “Justice through education in the Nordic countries” (JustEd) is part of the Education for Tomorrow programme launched in 2013. The programme comprises six projects in addition to the JustED Centre. Read more about the programme and its projects. 

About ESOF:

The Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) is Europe’s largest research conference and is held every other year in a selected European city. The event takes place from 21 to 26 June and gathers researchers, journalists, politicians and other interested parties from around the world. The forum presents new research findings and technology and is expected to attract over 50 000 visitors.

Text: Tor Martin Nilsen Photo: Terje Heiestad