Access to Higher Education in Europe, Trends

  • Jan KouckýEmail author
  • Martin Zelenka
  • Aleš Bartušek
Living reference work entry



Access questions a student ability to enroll in any tertiary institution. Although equal access is formally guaranteed in almost all systems of tertiary education in developed countries, the influence of ascriptive factors remains generally strong. To a certain extent, it is an unintended consequence of the meritocratic principle that is therefore criticized on the grounds that, although it emphasizes competence and results, in fact it favors those who have had better conditions for achieving them only due to a more stimulating and richer (in economic, social, and cultural terms) family background. Ascription occurs when social class or stratum placement is primarily hereditary. In other words, people are placed in positions in a stratification system because of qualities beyond their control. Race, social class, strata or group (parental characteristics), sex, age, and ethnicity are good examples of these qualities. Ascription is one way sociologists explain why stratification occurs.

Expansion and Equity

The role and position of education in modern European societies underwent substantial changes in the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Higher levels of education were traditionally open to a relatively tiny group of the population. Unlike primary and, later on, secondary education, they remained highly elitist for a much longer time both in terms of the chances of its acquisition and in terms of the nature of education provided. Participation in higher education was very low before WWII and it only exceeded 10% in the mid-1950s in some European countries. However, the rate of participation (i.e., the proportion of students in the relevant age cohort) in tertiary education increased significantly in developed countries over the last 60 years. This has changed the structure and nature of universities and other tertiary education institutions as well as, and most importantly, the social functions and roles of tertiary education. The enormous growth in the share of the population studying at tertiary education institutions was the consequence of economic, political, and social changes.

The economic prosperity in developed Europe after WWII brought about major changes in the labor market and in terms of employment structure. Jobs were created in large numbers and there were increasing requirements for well-prepared and skilled workforce. This was caused by a continuous emergence of new technologies and the related growth in productivity, new trends in consumption, expansion of international trade, and changes in the division and organization of labor. Moreover, transition from agrarian societies of the previous centuries depending primarily on land (still in 1870 nearly a half of the population of Western Europe worked in agriculture) to industrial societies focusing on machinery (the bulk of work took place in factories) was completed. In the second half of the twentieth century the industrial era gradually comes to an end and work in service society focuses more on trade, transport, and similar activities demanding in terms of human labor (the largest proportion of employment moves from industry to traditional services). The last two decades of the twentieth century witness another change where knowledge, innovation and information, as well as the human capacity to acquire knowledge, make use of it and learn, become the main productive force in the knowledge society.

Higher education is not only associated with a higher level of employability and income (and, consequently, higher living standards), but it is also considered a key factor of economic growth and technological advancement (Becker 1964; Blaug 1970; Denison 1967; Mincer 1974; or Schultz 1961). Emerging in the 1960s, theory of human capital gained recognition with an assertion that the capacities and education of people were more important (and yielding better returns to investment both to society and individuals) than other forms of capital. However, the following decades saw a certain sobering up from overly optimistic expectations of the social benefits of investment in education (economic analyses repeatedly confirmed that individual returns of education were higher than those to society, e.g., Psacharopoulos 2002). It was pointed out that some of the premises of the human capital theory were untenable (Wolf 2002), and attention was increasingly drawn to the importance of the signaling and allocating functions of education.

However, the importance of education for the development of society and the economy has been increasingly stressed again as a result of the gradual process of European integration and the building of the common market. This process is further reinforced by much stiffer global competition requiring that the potential of the entire population (preferably all social groups and individuals) be used in full, and therefore their education and qualifications be enhanced as much as possible.

The same requirements are, however, also stipulated by the development of society and politics. The postwar democratization of education was perceived as a substantial widening of rights and liberties of citizens and thus as part and parcel of the overall postwar democratization in Europe. It was also linked with great expectations – some important political programs assumed that education would become an effective instrument in tackling poverty and bringing more justice.

Education thus appears as a prerequisite for upholding democratic society that requires full participation in civic life. While some other bonds holding society together have been weakened, the education system is expected to function as an integrating force, limiting marginalization and even exclusion of individuals and social groups. Education has a major influence not only on the stability and cohesion of society as a whole, but also on the development and the quality of life of each individual; it facilitates a larger degree of sharing the cultural wealth, establishment of broad social networks and healthier lifestyles.

Attention is currently focused not only on quantitative growth, but also on the actual distribution of educational opportunities in society. Nearly all developed countries seek, in addition to increasing the overall rate of participation in education, to increase and equalize participation of all social strata regardless of their social, economic, cultural, or ethnic background, and to ensure equal opportunities (or equity) for each individual. Efforts to overcome social inequality in access to higher education therefore constitute one of the principal characteristics of modern democratic society. Ensuring equal access to education based on individuals’ ability and results (the principle of meritocracy) and not on ascriptive factors has become a generally declared and acknowledged goal. Equity has become, along with quality and efficiency, one of the main objectives of education policies of developed countries as well as international organizations (D’Addio 2007).

There exist many grounds for it – and again on multiple levels, economic, socio-political, and ethical. Equal access to education for members of all social groups and strata facilitates the development of the potential of the entire young generation and, in this way, ensures the most effective use of their talents and aptitudes for the benefits of the economy and society. It maintains social cohesion, as it facilitates changes in social status (status mobility) between the generations of parents and children. It makes it more difficult for some to accumulate privileges and for others to be pushed to the margins of society and, in this way, it helps to avoid otherwise inevitable social conflicts. Finally, equal chances in life constitute one of the foundations of understanding justice in democratic societies, as all human beings should have the same human rights, including to education.

The individual function of education has been strengthened as well. It was particularly in the postwar period of democratization of society, which brought about extensive opportunities of enhancing individuals’ social status and life, that education became a major factor of upward mobility, “the way up.” Education attained became an important component of the social status of each individual and his/her family, and a factor of change. Tertiary education was indeed viewed as a relatively reliable “lift” to social success: to interesting and prestigious work, high living standard and style, and good social position.

Efforts to increase one’s position (and/or that of one’s own children) resulted in an unprecedented growth of educational aspirations in all groups of society. Although individual demand for education does not always correspond to abilities or future position on the labor market, yet it has become the main driving force of the quantitative expansion of education. After decades of expansion, tertiary education – today acquired by a substantial proportion of young people – is seen more as a safeguard against social decline than as a social lift, a safeguard that is even no longer entirely reliable (Keller 2008). Problems thus raised provoke a certain tension between social and individual functions of education.

Diversification and Inequalities

The development of tertiary education during the last 60 years shows that its expansion is inevitably interlinked with its diversification, both processes are interdependent, caused by the same reasons. The economic reasons and the demand on the labor market – when the graduation rate is growing – require more types and levels of education and training, including short and largely professionally and practically oriented programs. Social reasons and widening of access result in a far higher heterogeneity of students and thus in a greater diversity of their aptitudes, interests, motivations, and goals. Hence quantitative expansion is accompanied with structural transformation, and as new types of institutions and study programs impact on other characteristics of tertiary education, also qualitative transformation is under way.

This fundamental threefold transformation proceeds in more stages than one. It was as early as the 1970s that American sociologist Trow – making use of the experience of US higher education institutions that were ahead of European development – defined together with the OECD three basic phases of tertiary education (and thus three types of tertiary education systems) as elite, mass, and universal. Trow characterized and explained them not only in terms of their function, goals, structure, and further qualitative characteristics (e.g., governance, quality standards, access and selection, curriculum) but also quantitatively, according to the proportion of the relevant age group admitted to studies (that is to the entry rate). He established a 15% limit for transition from the elite to the mass phase, and a 30% limit for transition from the mass to the universal phase (Trow 1974), revising later both limits according to experience newly gained in Europe and the USA to 25% and 50%, respectively (Trow 2005).

In Europe, the transition from the elite to the mass phase has been in progress since the second half of the 1960s. New short and mostly vocationally oriented programs have been introduced, offered in new types of institutions that were often transformed from best upper secondary technical schools. A whole range included, for instance, Polytechnics in Great Britain and Finland, Fachhochschulen in Germany and Austria, Institutes Universitaires de Technologie and Sections des Techniciens Supérieurs (STS) in France, Higher Vocational Schools (HBO) in the Netherlands, Flemish Hogescholen and Wallonian Hautes Écoles in Belgium, Regional Colleges in Ireland or Norway, or Higher Professional Schools (VOŠ) in the Czech Republic. Although they usually had a lower status as HE nonuniversity institutions or as tertiary non-HE institutions, their graduates often found a good position on a growing labor market.

Some countries defined their tertiary education systems explicitly as binary with a clear distinction made between universities and other types of institution (today for instance in Belgium, Finland, or France). However, even in cases where these systems formally remained – or again became – unitary (for instance in the Netherlands, Germany, or the United Kingdom), they still underwent internal structural and qualitative differentiation: vertical according to the position and prestige of the institution, and horizontal according to the focus and specialization of the study programs (Brennan and Naidoo 2007).

Since the 1990s research into inequalities in access to tertiary education has been focusing on three key questions that emerge in the process of studying the issue of expansion of tertiary education on the one hand and the issue of inequality in access to this education on the other hand. Does quantitative growth (i.e., a robust expansion of opportunities of studying at tertiary level) also lead to a more equal and fairer access to this education regardless of various advantages or disadvantages on the part of the applicant? Does it result in a genuine decrease in inequality? Moreover, the fact that expansion of tertiary education goes hand in hand with its diversification raises another question: What is the impact of internal diversification of the system on the development of inequalities – irrespective of whether the diversification consists in differences between various sectors of tertiary education, individual schools/institutions of tertiary education, levels (bachelor’s, master’s, PhD), or fields of studies, with different prestige and standards and, consequently, with a varying level of selectivity?

According to the theory of Maximally Maintained Inequality (Raftery and Hout 1993; Raftery 2007) the influence of family background does not decrease until the educational needs of the most favored social groups are satisfied – i.e., until nearly all individuals within these groups achieve the relevant level of education (the term saturation point is used in this context). At this point inequalities began to decrease at the given level of education, but they increase at the next more advanced level, as the population applying for these studies becomes more heterogeneous. The MMI theory is consistent with some other conclusions and it is therefore often used as a working hypothesis in research into expansion and stratification of education. For example, the authors of an extensive comparative study of inequalities in access to education in 12 countries characterized this situation as persistent inequality (Shavit and Blossfeld 1993).

Expansion of tertiary education necessarily affects its functions and roles in society. The reason is that, at individual level, instead of serving as a lift to prestigious jobs and careers tertiary education becomes a necessary but far from sufficient precondition for reaching up to these jobs and careers. Expansion of tertiary education is accompanied by its inner diversification. New study opportunities emerge predominantly at the lower, less selective level that has been added to complement the higher level of traditional universities. Individual strategies therefore cannot aim at a mere acquisition of tertiary education, but rather at completion of elite and prestigious institutions, at acquisition of higher degrees, studies of preferred programs, etc. However, access to these continues to be limited. This means that inequalities in access have not been eliminated, but have merely shifted within diversified systems and have taken new forms – qualitative and structural instead of quantitative. The Effectively Maintained Inequality theory offers similar conclusions (Lucas 2001; Lucas and Beresford 2010).

The new situation continues to be nontransparent. First, it is not clear what the roles of quantitative, qualitative, and structural factors are in various countries. Answering this question would require extensive comparative analyses of the various factors and dimensions involved. However, comparative analyses are limited by a lack of relevant and up-to-date information (Clancy and Goastellec 2007). This is why some of the most recent comparative projects are designed as profound sociological qualitative studies that do compare a number of countries, but also focus on their overall situation and broader context, interpret their specific development, and analyze national data sources without claiming rigorous comparability and relevance.

One of the most extensive comparative studies (Shavit et al. 2007) that concerns inequalities in access to tertiary education in 15 countries has expanded on the existing knowledge of the effects of diversification and provided a new assessment of the whole process (particularly see Arum et al. 2007).

Firstly, the study focuses on the relationship between expansion, differentiation, and market structure of tertiary education and their impact on inequalities. Expansion is taking place in all countries and, under certain conditions, can lead to a decrease in inequality. At the same time, expansion is closely linked to differentiation, as diversified tertiary education systems increase the overall participation rate. Secondly, the study interprets the research results from two perspectives – diversion and inclusion. The outcomes of the study confirm that inclusion does occur. Although social selection remains the same (until the saturation point is achieved), there are more students of all classes (including those with disadvantages) continuing their education, and inequalities therefore decrease within the age cohort as a whole. Thirdly, the study stresses that the above conclusions – i.e., that expansion supports inclusion although inequalities do not decrease – lead to a new interpretation of earlier research (Shavit and Blossfeld 1993). It was this research that produced the term persistent inequality, but failed to get to the very essence of the problem. Expansion at a certain level of education increases the level of heterogeneity of those who then move on to study at a higher level. This means, at the same time, that expansion facilitates access for a larger proportion of young people from all social strata, and the system should therefore be considered as more inclusive. Although relative inequalities remain unchanged, inclusion leads to an absolute enlargement of access for a wide range of the population. And even though it is possible to see education predominantly as a positional good, yet its expansion represents a benefit because it increases the human capital of individuals and of the entire society.

Unfortunately, one of the main problems faced by researches in Europe and around the world is the lack of suitable and comparable data across countries. One of the most recent comparative study (Atherton et al. 2016) considered whether it might be possible to develop a reliable so-called Global Equity Index that would compare HE access across nations, but found that there are not currently enough suitable data available to create a meaningful index. In place of an index, and as a catalyst to action, they have produced a Global Equity Data Charter for HE, with suggestions for some coordinated next steps that providers, national governments, and international organizations can take to gather more comprehensive and comparable data.

Inequality in Tertiary Education Attainment 1950–2015

The following analysis of the development of inequalities in tertiary education attainment is based on the data gathered in the first seven rounds of the European Social Survey (ESS), from 2002/2003 to 2014/15, respectively, in more than 30 European countries.

Using a concept and methodology developed here (Koucký et al. 2009) and further elaborated here (Koucký et al. 2010), the analysis of the Inequality Index in European countries has revealed that the level of inequality in tertiary education attainment in Europe had been gradually decreasing over the first three decades, but since has increased to about the same level as it was at the beginning. In many European countries inequalities reached their minimum levels during the 1970s and 1980s, but in the 1990s they began to grow again. In number of countries their levels even exceeded those achieved in the 1950s and 1960s. The change in the 1990s can be explained by the overall development of society, in developed countries around the world rather strongly affected by neoliberalism. Its manifestations included, among other things, an increase in the level of wealth and of income inequality and other similar indicators. Since then the Inequality Index for Europe remained about the same.

Neither the average European level of inequality in tertiary education attainment nor the long-term trends can be generalized for all countries and periods. It is necessary to deal with individual countries and periods specifically, as they differ a lot. It has turned out, for example, that the originally large spread of the Inequality Index (measured by standard deviation) between countries began to diminish in the 1950s and kept on diminishing till the 1970s. However, the spread of Index values in the 1980s got larger again, and after two decades of smaller differences, the differences in inequality between European countries have reached in its new high in the 2010s.

In the decade immediately after the end of the WWII there were high levels of inequalities in tertiary education attainment particularly in Portugal, Lithuania, France Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Spain. However, from that time on inequalities in most of these countries have tended to decrease or fluctuate – although this was not true of all participating countries (e.g., Bulgaria and Slovakia) and all periods analyzed.

For example, in the last two and half decades (1990–2015) the highest level of inequality in tertiary education attainment of all 22 analyzed countries can be found in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and also in Belgium, which is the country where inequality in tertiary education attainment has risen the most since the 1980s. A major trend of growing inequalities can also be observed in Estonia (1960s–1980s), the United Kingdom (1960s–1990s), Bulgaria and Lithuania (since 1960s to the present), Slovakia (in 1970s), Germany (1960s–2000s), Greece (1970s–2000s), Sweden (since the 1980s to the present), and France (in the 2010s). However, while in Bulgaria and Slovakia the level of inequality in tertiary education attainment was above-the-average as early as the 1950s, countries such as Estonia, the United Kingdom, and Sweden have never reached the European average and Germany and Greece has stepped over the European average as late as during one of the most recent decade (2000–2010).

On the other hand, a steady decrease in the level of inequalities in TE attainment in early decades occurred in Portugal, Finland, Spain, Lithuania, and Sweden. The same happened in Slovenia and Denmark during the most recent decades. However, while Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, and even Spain have shown the lowest inequality levels of all countries in the most recent one and half decade (2000–2015), these values have risen to average levels in the case of Portugal and Sweden and to an above-the-average level in case of Lithuania. Both influences – the starting level of inequality and the long-term development tendencies – are intertwined and explain their present level. In the most recent periods after 2000, the level of inequalities has been the lowest in Denmark, Slovenia, Finland, and Estonia – i.e., countries where the Inequality index has either underlined a major decrease or been low for the entire period (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Inequality index in TE attainment, European countries 1950–2015 (Source: European Social Survey 2017)

The analysis of the spread clearly confirms that the differences between countries are far from negligible – both in terms of the level and the development of inequalities in tertiary education attainment. The analysis of development trends and position of individual countries in all six time periods under review has led to the identification of three groups of countries. Although the three groups do represent certain types, the specific position and development of individual countries tend to create a continuum where it is not possible to strictly define any clear-cut boundaries, and countries forming one group still remain relatively heterogeneous. The breakdown of the countries into groups being, to a degree, related to their geographical position and cultural political situation, the three resulting types (groups of countries) have been described as countries of North-Western Europe, countries of South-Western Europe, and countries of Eastern Europe.

The identification of these groups of countries has resulted in defining three, relatively different trajectories of development that vary both in terms of their overall level and the dynamics of change. In terms of the spread of the level of inequalities (measured by standard deviation), the differences in inequalities were the largest in the 1950s and have become the smallest in the most recent period after 2010. Differences in the level of inequality between the three groups of countries were decreasing from the 1950s to the 1970s, then slightly increased in the 1980s, and then have begun to decrease again.

The three basic, relatively homogenous groups of European countries are composed as follows:
  • North-Western Europe (North-West): Denmark (DK), Finland (FI), Germany (DE), Ireland (IE), the Netherlands (NL), Norway (NO), Sweden (SE), the United Kingdom (GB).

  • South-Western Europe (South-West): Belgium (BE), France (FR), Greece (GR), Portugal (PT), Spain (ES), Switzerland (CH).

  • Eastern Europe (East): Bulgaria (BG), the Czech Republic (CZ), Estonia (EE), Hungary (HU), Lithuania (LT), Poland (PL), the Slovak Republic (SK), Slovenia (SI) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Inequality index in tertiary education attainment, Groups of European countries 1950-2015 (Source: European Social Survey 2017)

The decrease in the overall level of Inequality Index in tertiary education attainment in Europe in the early decades can be largely attributed to the countries of South-Western Europe. Historically, they have a predominantly catholic tradition with a steeper social hierarchy and more clearly stratified social groups and classes. The original levels of inequality in tertiary education attainment in these countries were the highest of all (in the 1950s the Inequality Index was 56 on average, being by far the highest in Portugal) but they began to show a steady decrease in the following decades. In the 1990s inequalities in South-Western Europe have started increasing slightly again (51) and, after a small decrease, have increased quite sharply in the last half of a decade. However, this increase has happened only because of increase in Belgium and France.

Overall, the lowest levels of inequalities in tertiary education attainment in the entire postwar period can be found in countries of North-Western Europe. They are, to a large degree, rooted in the protestant tradition with a less steep social hierarchy and smaller differences between the characteristics of social groups and strata. Between 1950s and 1980s the average Inequality Index first has decreased and started to gradually increase in the range of 41–44. It then sharply increased to a value of 48 where it remained stable ever since. However, despite this increase in inequalities in the 1990s (the largest one occurred in Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway) this group of countries remains far below the European average.

Countries of Eastern Europe experienced an entirely different and more fluctuating development in terms of inequalities. In the 1950s they showed approximately the average European level of Inequality Index in tertiary education attainment. In most Eastern European countries this was caused, above all, by postwar communist takeovers that were often accompanied by an extensive “regrouping” of social strata or “overturning” of social structure, a massive emigration of people from higher social classes and the introduction of “class” criteria in admission to tertiary education institutions. Understandably, this disrupted the processes of intergeneration transmission of education (see, for example, Bourdieu 1986). Despite this, inequalities in tertiary education attainment began to increase again as early as the 1960s and then, again, in the 1980s, as members of “new social elites” gradually restored and consolidated the continuity of intergeneration transmission. As a result, in the 1960s for the first time the average Inequality Index in countries of Eastern Europe achieved the highest level of all three groups.

From the 1990s – i.e., immediately after the demise of socialism – Eastern European countries experienced further social changes. They resulted, among other things, in increasing overall social inequalities in many areas, for example, in the distribution of wealth and income. It is therefore not surprising that these changes also had an impact on inequalities in tertiary education attainment. This was particularly due the social status crystallization (a process where status characteristics, which were originally only very loosely connected, begin to strengthen their mutual links and correlate together) that manifested itself, apart from other things, in a severe strengthening of the link between education and income (which was very loose under socialism).

An increase in the overall congruence of social status where education began to play a major role had another important implication. In systems with a low proportion of adults with higher qualifications, demand for tertiary education on the part of new young generations began to grow dramatically (in some Eastern European countries they represented large demographic groups). It took higher education policy several years to respond to this development. Due to the necessary selection as part of a supply oriented system, successful candidates were mainly those with a more favorable (supportive) family background and a higher level of economic, social, and cultural capital (see, for example, Shavit et al. 2007). After 2000 inequalities have begun slowly to decrease in Eastern European countries. In connection with an increase of Inequality Index the countries of South-Western Europe in the last half of a decade the level of Inequality Index for Eastern and South-Western European countries is now basically the same.

In addition to the overall influence of family background on inequalities in tertiary education attainment of children from various social strata, each of the four factors of family background (so-called ascriptive factors) has a different impact on the overall level of inequality. Another objective was therefore to analyze the scale of impact of various family background factors for the European population for various periods. It has revealed two basic dimensions of intergeneration transmission of inequalities in tertiary education attainment. The first one relates to characteristics of the father and of the mother, the second one to characteristics of occupation and of education. The most significant trend in Europe in the last 60 years in most of countries is the shift from the predominance of the father’s characteristics to the characteristics of education of both parents. The impact of the father’s occupation has been more or less constantly decreasing in Europe since the 1950s when it was at its peak and has actually become the factor with least impact. On the other hand, the impact of the mother’s occupation has been strengthening in the last 65 years even to the level that it has become stronger factor than father’s occupation and about as strong as father’s education. In general, the prevalence of the father has been gradually weakening and impact of mother strengthening. This led to a period of 1990–2010 where impacts of all four factors have become very much similar. However, an analysis of last half a decade showed rather steep increase in impact of mother’s education which is now clearly the strongest factor. Admittedly it is only half a decade and only analysis of future data will show whether this is long term trend.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Education Policy CentreCharles UniversityPragueCzech Republic