Parents and partners and the transferral of inequality

Written by  Jules Coenegracht Wednesday, 02 June 2010 00:00

Intense. This is what sociologist Jaap Dronkers calls the transition from Florence to Maastricht. He worked in Florence at the European University Institute, a postgraduate and research institute of the European Union, for eight years. Since 1 December 2009, he has been working as a professor at Maastricht University’s Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA). Focus of research: education and inequality.

The transition was so intense not because of Maastricht, says Dronkers, but because of Florence. “It was the most stimulating environment I’ve ever experienced, both in terms of colleagues and students. And that quite apart from the sheer beauty of Tuscany and Italy.” After eight years, his contract came to an end. So what made him come to Maastricht? “Rolf van der Velden from the ROA asked me: ‘Why don’t you come and work for us? I’m 65 years old and basically retired. Maastricht University made me a good offer. They created a professorial chair that fits the things I’m working on I’m interested in.”

A poorly educated partner

The chair is called ‘International comparative research on educational performance and social equality’. And that is exactly what Dronkers is involved in: education and inequality. Question: Does poor performance in education lead to social inequality, or does social inequality lead to poor performance in education? “Both”, says Dronkers. “There’s a certain inequality between social classes. This leads to unequal education performance – there’s no doubt about that. But unequal education performance also leads to unequal social opportunities. My favourite line has always been: if you’re poorly educated, chances are you will find a partner who’s also poorly educated. And I can guarantee you: this is not good. The best thing is to have a well-educated partner. There are two important mechanisms that play a role in the transferral of inequality: the transfer from parents to children, and the life partner choice. You’re more likely to survive an illness if you have a well-educated partner than if you have a poorly educated partner. We may not like this fact, but there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s not what I’m here for.”

It appears that certain education systems can either weaken or strengthen this inequality. The Dutch system, for instance, seems to strengthen it due to the Cito exam, which streams children into higher- and lower-level education at an early age, and due to what Dronkers calls ‘the lack of correction possibilities’. By this he means, for example, the fact that it is difficult to move up from the VMBO level (preparatory secondary vocational education) to HAVO (senior general secondary education). “Ritzen limited those possibilities during his term as Minister for Education.”


Dronkers: “Studying education and inequality is the core of what I do. But if this study brings to light a different subject worth pursuing … ” For instance, his study on inequality led to research on divorce, nobility and education opportunities for migrants. When you talk about migrants in the Netherlands, you soon find yourself on a fairly explosive political playing field. Does Dronkers see a role for himself and his discipline? “Yes. First of all, I’m an empiricist. I don’t comment on things; I calculate them. It’s my job to quantify hypotheses and assumptions people have about things. So if they say, like the organisation ‘Nederland Kiest Kleur (The Dutch Choose Colour) recently did, that ‘the educational deprivation of migrant children is caused by the poor environment from which they come’, then I say: I’d like to calculate that. And the outcome would be: Yes indeed, the poor environment is a cause – but not the only cause. The country of origin also plays a part. One immigrant is not the same as another. A Chinese immigrant does considerably better than a comparable native of the country, while a Moroccan student does worse.”

Another question could be: What country is the best to emigrate to? There’s one clear answer to this question: Don’t go to Europe. And especially not to Scandinavia. This is because the welfare states are very well regulated – which is a good thing of course, but at the same time it means that people can be marginalised very easily. “The best option is to go to Australia, New Zealand or the United States. If there’s no other choice, go to the United Kingdom. That is in Europe the best place to go because its labour market is the most liberalised in Europe. This means that there are a lot of crappy jobs with lousy pay and there’s a lot of inequality, but it does offer the immigrant much more opportunities. To quote our very own Dutch ‘philosopher’ and internationally renowned football coach Johan Cruijff: every advantage has its disadvantage.”

Jaap Dronkers is Professor of International comparative research on educational performance and social inequality at Maastricht University. He studied sociology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He was visiting scholar at the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development and Professor of Social Stratification and Inequality at the European University Institute in Florence. He is one of the organisers of the European Network for the Sociological and Demographic Study of Divorce. In 2009 he achieved the Professor Leune Award for his contribution to educational innovation. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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