Degrees of a lesser god: Social class a factor in MCAST prestige

MCAST researchers think higher-income groups look down on vocational education degrees despite their equality to traditional university degrees

MCAST researchers have found varying public perceptions towards vocational institutions and degrees, suggesting the latter qualifications do not enjoy the respect of self-identifying members of higher class or higher income groups.

The study, a survey of 573 adults using a Google Forms questionnaire, measured the different attitudes towards three specific Maltese state-sponsored further and higher education institutions – MCAST and ITS, vocational or VET institutes, and the traditionally academic University of Malta.

The main variable was defined in terms of difference in attitudes toward the new vocational, as opposed to traditional academic institutions.

The findings revealed small, but statistically significant effects of self-identified social class, income and level of education: the higher these socio-economic values, the lower the positive perceptions of vocational education.

The study effectively shows that such arbitrary attributions of prestige to institutions such as the University of Malta, broadly undermined the prospects of a truly meritocratic society, by reducing qualifications “to mere referents of otherwise fixed social status.”

The study shows that an element of status is still linked to traditionally academic further and higher education in Malta.

While social class explains only a relatively low proportion of this variation, the researchers queried whether vocational educational was also perpetuating a traditional division between working-class graduates from technical institutes, and higher-class graduates in academia.

MCAST researchers Francesca Mizzi-Caruana, Matthew Muscat-Inglott, and Renzo Kerr-Cumbo – writing in the Malta Review of Educational Research – said higher education qualifications from MCAST or ITS were at par with those of the University of Malta, offering an opportunity to students who would not have otherwise been granted access. “If education is really a vehicle of social mobility, then such educational pathways should by default also lead up the social ladder,” researchers said, noting the high prevalence of MCAST students from economically ‘poorer’ towns in the southern harbour region of the island.

But the researchers noted a high variance amongst upper middle-class groups, suggesting these represent a particular bourgeoisie or employer class. “If employers exhibit negative attitudes towards VET on the basis of assumed personal status and prestige, their views must simultaneously account for the reality that their very existence as a class is contingent on the availability of cooperative employees,” they pointed out.

“If state-sponsored VET institutions help reproduce a subservient employee class across generations, then employers must juxtapose both sympathetic and stigmatising views of VET, a conflict that helps explain the disparate views observed.”

By way of analogy, the researchers said this was akin to parents who exhibit positive attitudes toward state schools and the public education system but would still not admit their own child in such schools. “In the same way, an employer may value VET in principle, yet reject the possibility of pursuing such a pathway personally, as well as discourage their children from doing so also.”

The most significant differences in attitudes towards VET occurred among those groups earning above €1,625 a month, a midpoint of sorts in the NSO’s “average” Maltese gross monthly salary of anything between €1,500-€1,800. Researchers said this suggests that receiving a monthly income either immediately above or below the average, has the most significant impact on attitudes towards VET.

Another statistically significant relationship similarly emerged between attitudes to VET and own education level: the higher the level of education, the lower perceptions tended to be of VET.

The researchers said that since the highest levels of degrees currently held by Maltese graduates were predominantly attained either from UM or foreign institutions, further research might investigate how this influences their attitudes towards VET. With MCAST also now providing postgraduate and doctoral programmes, such trends may yet change.

“An observable and statistically significant association can be inferred between attitudes to vocational education and self-identified social class,” the researchers said. “The same holds for financial income and education level... Across all these factors, increases in status were associated with decreasing approval of new vocational further and higher education institutions as opposed to the traditional academic university as a baseline.”

The researchers said the data provides cause for reflection: for the University of Malta, it would be about what is being done within Malta’s most prestigious and traditionally academic higher education environment, “to challenge patterns of hierarchical thinking and entitlement among those who will most likely to go on to participate in the important conversations in Maltese society influencing distributions of wealth, social rewards and privileges.”

For VET providers on the other hand, the results raise compelling questions about the ever-present parity of esteem issue.

“Parity of esteem largely ignores what she described as the ‘elephant in the room’, or rather, the problematic notion of upward social mobility resulting from educational achievements. While one may strive for upward social mobility through the pursuit of vocational qualifications, motivated by the idea that all qualifications are equal, they are instead likely to encounter a rigid and inflexible social class structure that continues to be reproduced across generations.”

Same qualification, no esteem

Critical scholars have argued that VET has traditionally served as a system that directs working-class youths into traditionally working-class occupations, in the process reproducing socioeconomic inequalities across generations.

In Malta, students from the Southern Harbour region, which registers lowest average incomes and property prices, are over-represented at MCAST, and under-represented at UM.

“The longstanding issue of achieving parity of esteem in this sense, is problematic. If VET institutions actually end up channelling learners into the subservient class of a fixed social structure, duly unequipped to challenge the social and political status quo, then what are the real motives for overly enthusiastic promotion of VET, and associated promises of parity of esteem?”

The researchers said that by associating prestige to UM degrees, there appears to be no real material benefit conveyed by society to VET qualifications. This in itself might lead to a ‘changing of goalposts’ so that entrenched class lines are kept in place, restricting access to working-class graduands to the rewards of higher social status.

This becomes even more important for the maintenance of a status quo where, as more and more graduates are produced, the higher their expectation that they can cash in “what they have been led to believe are valid status symbols with an exchange value for increasing their social capital.”

The researchers say that if education is actually reinforcing class divisions instead of disrupting them, then qualifications are simply become symbols, or what sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino termed as “status exhibitionism”.

“In other words, a critical interpretation of prestige as it applies to further and higher education, increasingly renders qualifications as referents, or accolades that serve to confirm existing social class, rather than change it,” the researchers said.

“What seems to matter, ultimately, is that people identifying with a certain social class hold the right kind of qualifications as an authentication of their existing status. The promotion of VET, therefore, or indeed any other initiatives pertaining to the development of Malta’s rapidly-evolving tracked further and higher education system, should arguably serve not only the aim of dismantling outdated assumptions about prestige and privilege, but also pursue broader policy reforms facilitating the real material conditions needed to act as genuine incentives for students considering VET pathways, regardless of their prior socioeconomic circumstances.”