Kristin Voigt – ‘Individual Choice and Unequal Participation in Higher Education’

On 21 November 2007, Kristin Voigt, assistant professor, European College of Liberal Arts, held a seminar based on her article, ‘Individual Choice and Unequal Participation in Higher Education’. The presentation of the article was followed by a discussion that gathered students and professors of ECLA.

‘Individual Choice and Unequal Participation in Higher Education’ considers the under-representation of students in the higher education sector. The approach used in the research is ‘luck egalitarianism’, a theory of social justice that distinguishes between outcomes which are a result of luck and those that arise from the individual’s choices.

Relying on a specific understanding of luck egalitarian theory, Voigt sets out to prove how, in higher education, the issue of individual choice is complex and that the individual cannot be held responsible for certain choices and, thus, be placed within a certain distribution scheme.

The research context is the higher education sector in UK, with reference to students or potential students coming from two social backgrounds: the working class and the middle class. Using sociological data and research Voigt outlines those elements of meaningful individual choice and finds that the socio-economic background has significant effects on the options available to young people. Research findings further show that the perception of outcomes and their values are distorted by social class stereotypes, which impacts upon a student’s decision to apply to university.

The seminar discussion focused on two issues:  first, the method of drawing a real distinction between choice and luck and, secondly, what theory of good is related to the justness of outcomes of education. Voigt’s article finds that the most sought-for outcome of higher education is improved opportunities in the job market, implying a theory of good that holds income as its object.

Throughout the seminar, participants argued that higher education should seek to accomplish goals other than high income. At the close of the discussion participants agreed that, whatever theory of good would replace that of earnings, social injustice is still present. Voigt suggested that sociological research on this subject could be specific and measurable only by considering material welfare as the outcome of education. A second point raised in the discussion was that of social mobility as a potential solution to the unequal distribution of chances to higher education. The seminar generated issues for a future discussion, namely social policy development and the extent to which the state should point at injustices as such and find methods of compensation. Complementing the ECLA core course theme (education), the seminar reinforced the importance of reflection upon educational issues.

Kristin Voigt is currently completing a PhD in political theory at the University of Oxford. She has taught courses on contemporary politics and on the history of political thought. The article ‘Individual Choice and Unequal Participation in Higher Education’ was published in the journal Theory and Research in Education and can be accessed online at: http://tre.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/5/1/87.

By Livia Marinescu (’08, Romania)