Aiming high: further education and social justice

Karen Robson, Associate Professor of Sociology at Toronto's York University, gave an illuminating seminar at the UCL Institute of Education on the transition to higher education, drawing on the effects of class, gender and race. Ben Smith reports

My colleague Yaw Bimpeh and I attended a seminar at the UCL Institute of Education on 29 June. Karen Robson, Associate Professor of Sociology at York University (in Toronto), presented preliminary findings from a major piece of work entitled 'Transition to Higher Education in Three Gateway Cities: the combined effects of class, gender and race'. Yaw and I are currently working on a project with a social justice angle (for the AEA Europe conference in November), so we were keen to understand more about the techniques used in contemporary research in the same area.

The study sources data from several large 'gateway cities' (defined as cities with sizeable immigrant populations). Those discussed were Toronto, Chicago and London. Using an intersectionality framework to consider class, gender and race, the progression of specific demographic groups to higher education was examined via a 
number of multi-level analyses.

The findings

Major findings included the observation that in Toronto, students from a range of Asian backgrounds were the most likely to progress to university, while black students were far less likely to do so. Black males in particular saw a significantly reduced university uptake that could be attributed to a range of factors: lower family incomes and parental education, higher incidence of special educational needs and disproportionate streaming into applied courses, which are not held in high regard for university admissions. It was striking to note that a significantly lower proportion of black students were progressing to university in Toronto in comparison to Chicago. 

The Canadian government traditionally takes a 'race-blind' approach, which may initially seem admirable (its censuses apparently includes just two racial categories: 'visible minority' and 'not visible minority'). However, a refusal to engage with race as a factor in education means that issues facing minority groups have been glossed over in the past. A ‘dilution’ of resources away from the point at which they are most needed occurs as a result; Robson cited an example where youth programmes were rolled out among various poor neighbourhoods, when focusing explicitly on black males may well have proven more beneficial in closing the biggest educational gaps. Robson is attempting to change the Toronto government's stance, in order to increase opportunities specifically for black male students.

Looking ahead

The next stage of the study is for colleagues in the UK to analyse data from the National Pupil database so that Robson can perform an additional Toronto-London comparison. Some very preliminary data revealed that black African males were comparatively more likely to go to university in London than Toronto, but that in general other demographic groups performed similarly in both cities. There is also evidence to suggest that the tendency for girls to outperform boys in terms of university admissions is slightly more severe in Toronto than in London. Given that a common focus of the UK media is on boys' educational performance trailing behind that of girls, it is interesting that there is far less of a 'failing boys' narrative in the Canadian media!

Robson and her colleagues have a lot to do before the Gateway Cities Project is complete – a further two cities are yet to be incorporated into the analysis. But the preliminary findings have valuable policy implications and prompted us to consider intersectionality in our own work.

Definitely worth a sweltering trip on the Tube!

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