Higher education participation in "high-income" universal higher education systems: "Survivalism" in the risk society

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30 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: Global participation in higher education has expanded greatly since the late twentieth century. The implications for the cultural, social, and economic fabric of societies have been substantial. To explain transitions from elite to mass higher education systems, theoretical insights from Technical-functionalism, Neo-institutionalism, World Academic System, and Credentialism perspectives have been put forward. It is the contention of this paper that there are emerging and complementary factors driving steadily growing participation in "high-income" universal higher education systems. The paper aims to discuss these issues.
Design/methodology/approach: With reference to Ulrich Beck's concept of the "risk society", it is discussed how higher education participation is increasingly a response by young people (and their families) seeking to mitigate heightened instability in work and employment under a "risk regime". Publicly available data from national and supra-national organisations are used to evidence trends and support the arguments put forward by this paper.
Findings: Participation is perceived as quasi-compulsory to "survive" amid concern that those without higher education attainment are being "left behind" in modern labour markets. This environment has contributed to more students from more diverse backgrounds viewing higher education as the only viable option to secure a livelihood regardless of rising private costs of participation and rising uncertainty over graduate employment outcomes. The expansion of higher education has therefore potentially developed a self-perpetuating dynamic as the perceived cost of non-participation escalates.
Originality/value: It is shown that to better understand higher education participation in "high-income" countries with universal higher education systems, one needs to consider the conceptual idea of "survivalism", that underlines risk and the vulnerabilities of modern societies. Copyright © 2018 Emerald Publishing Limited.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)184-204
JournalAsian Education and Development Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2018


Wright, E., & Horta, H. (2018). Higher education participation in "high-income" universal higher education systems: "Survivalism" in the risk society. Asian Education and Development Studies, 7(2), 184-204. doi: 10.1108/AEDS-07-2017-0061


  • Inequality
  • Higher education
  • Labour markets
  • Risk society
  • Higher education participation
  • Private returns of education


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