Despite the persistent worldwide trend of massification of higher education and the steady increase in the involvement of adults in learning activities, social inequalities in higher and adult education remain among the major problems of contemporary societies. The crucial importance of this problem stems from the fact that educational inequalities determine to a great extent economic inequalities and inequalities in civic participation and social trust. The recent crisis, triggered by the Coronavirus pandemic, further enhances the importance of inequalities in education and their role for individual and societal well-being.
A large body of research has been published which develop theories and hypotheses relating overall educational expansion to the dynamics of inequalities in participation in higher and adult education. However, they do not provide a unanimous answer about the direction of this relationship. Some studies observe a decrease of inequalities of educational opportunity due to social origin of students and learners. A huge number of studies have also been published which suggest the stable and persistent effect that socioeconomic background has on access to higher and adult education. Patterns of participation in adult education, which have been identified and confirmed by several authors, clearly show that younger adults, those with higher educational attainment, those with jobs, or those employed in high-skilled occupations, participate more frequently than older, low-educated, and unemployed people or those employed in low-skilled occupations. It is acknowledged that these patterns of participation lead to growing inequalities, in terms of both education and labor market outcomes, over the life span.
Against this background, the present proposal takes the opportunity to rethink the question of education’s role in producing a more equal society in the twenty-first century by developing an innovative social justice perspective towards educational inequalities and trying to capture the dynamics of inequalities in participation in higher and adult education and of their effects on some important public goods in an European comparative perspective.