Achieving equal opportunities through education, a global challenge

Equality of educational opportunity is a global issue, sometimes erroneously associated only with developing countries. Indeed, even in developed countries like France, educational disparities are a source of inequality at different stages of life. UNESCO defines equal opportunity as "the creation of equal conditions for all individuals to realize their potential, regardless of social origin, gender, race or other personal characteristics". World Equal Opportunities Day, celebrated on December 5, aims to raise awareness of this crucial issue that affects the whole world.

Overview of persistent inequalities in access to education

Access to quality education is a fundamental right and an essential lever for promoting socio-economic mobility, combating poverty and thus equalizing opportunities in society. Over the past decade, significant progress has been made in improving access to education, but persistent inequalities persist, both nationally and worldwide. In France, for example, less than 35% of people from the lowest 1% of families have access to higher education, compared with 90% of students from the wealthiest families. What's more, only 30% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds obtain a degree, compared with 80% of students from well-off families [1].

These figures highlight the existence of systemic barriers to the progress of young people from modest backgrounds in the French education system. The statistics speak for themselves: children from very disadvantaged families are 2.5 times less likely to obtain a higher diploma than their peers from well-off families [1]. The data reveal that socio-economic background plays a major role in students' academic success. Parental income levels influence students' writing skills and the subjects they choose. Students whose parents have no higher education are more likely to opt for vocational paths in high school, which can have repercussions on their future employability. Young adults who have not completed upper secondary education find themselves at a disadvantage, with an unemployment rate almost twice as high as that of more qualified young people.

On a global scale, the dream of quality education for all remains an essential objective. But today's reality, as revealed by the OECD's "Education at a Glance 2021" publication, shows that much remains to be done, and in many countries... Indeed, one in five adults in OECD countries has not reached upper secondary education, underlining the scale of educational inequality [2]. According to the United Nations, the figures are alarming: more than 260 million children and adolescents were not in school in 2018, almost a fifth of the world's population in this age group. What's more, more than half of all the world's children and adolescents do not possess the minimum level of reading and mathematical skills [3].

Yet people who have had access to quality education have more opportunities in life, whether to find a job, pursue higher education or contribute to society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated educational inequalities by causing learning losses in most countries. This has had a devastating impact on achieving the goal of universal secondary school completion by 2030 (Goal #4 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [4]). Without additional measures, 84 million children and young people will remain out of school, and around 300 million students will not have the basic skills they need to succeed in life.

Inequalities throughout the training cycle

Another point to emphasize is that these inequalities apply to both initial and continuing training. According to an article by the Observatoire des Inégalités on disparities in access to vocational training [6], nearly half of all employees in France have taken part in vocational training during the year; however, the figures show significant disparities. For example, only a quarter of employees in small companies have benefited from training, while this figure rises to 63% in larger companies. What's more, those with the most qualifications have greater access to vocational training than those who left school without any qualifications. So there are still great opportunities for companies to help bridge the gap.

Inequalities also persist according to labour market status and level of qualification. Employed people are more likely to have taken part in vocational training in the last twelve months, with an access rate of 51%. By contrast, this rate is only 34% for jobseekers and 9% for non-retired inactive people. Similarly, people with a long higher education diploma have a 65% access rate to training, while this rate drops to 15% for those with no diploma or primary school certificate [6].

Unequal opportunities accentuated by individual socio-biographical criteria

The OECD report also highlights the influence of origin and gender on educational pathways. In relation to origin, the figures show that first- and second-generation immigrants have lower success rates, in virtually every country where data are available. Gender disparities also persist. Women face difficulties on the job market, earning less than men, even with equivalent levels of education. According to the Baromètre Sexisme [5], more than 1 in 5 women have experienced a pay gap with a male colleague in an equal position or with equal skills, a proportion that rises to more than a third (37%) for managers.

These differences in opportunity are all the more critical when social mobility is limited. In France, only 9.7% of children from the poorest families manage to join the 20% most affluent households as adults - 4 times less than children from affluent families. This underlines the persistence of economic inequalities from one generation to the next.

A strong commitment to equal opportunity through ambitious educational and social policies

Without claiming a miracle solution, it is clear that to reduce these inequalities, it is essential to put in place educational and social policies that promote equitable access to higher education and encourage social mobility. This requires the ongoing commitment of the authorities, educational establishments and civil society.

To achieve the famous Goal#4 of the SDGs, increased funding is also essential. More than 79 low- and lower-middle-income countries need to close an average annual financing gap of $97 billion to meet national benchmark targets. This requires making education a national investment priority, making education free and compulsory, increasing the number of teachers, improving basic school infrastructure and engaging in digital transformation.

Continuing training, a lever in the hands of companies

It is important to recognize that lifelong learning plays a key role in improving the skills and knowledge of the working adult population, which can enhance their social mobility and career opportunities. However, it is crucial to ensure that these training opportunities are accessible to all, regardless of their social origin or educational background.

Companies have a crucial role to play in promoting equal opportunities in continuing training. This involves putting in place internal policies to support the training and professional development of all employees, paying particular attention to individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds or with prior educational shortcomings. Companies can also collaborate with educational institutions and government agencies to create partnerships aimed at providing continuing education opportunities for disadvantaged populations.

In conclusion, educational policies and corporate commitment via continuing education are key elements in combating persistent inequalities in education and promoting equal opportunities. By working together, players in the worlds of work and education can help create a fairer society where everyone has the opportunity to develop their full potential.

Mariana Raskine