Τhe education system in Greece contributes to the goals of social mobility and cohesion in many and important ways. Still, there are significant challenges in intergenerational mobility in education and persistent socioeconomic inequalities between students of different backgrounds can be observed. Additional efforts are required in order to achieve a more equitable distribution of educational outcomes across the student population so that the country’s social cohesion can be further strengthened in the longer term.
Education plays a key role in social mobility. Educational attainment is closely associated with a multiplicity of outcomes including employment status, profession selection, income, living standards and general well-being. At the same time, a strong parent-to-child transmission of socioeconomic position, which includes the educational aspect, is observed in most countries around the world.
Despite its various shortcomings, the Greek education system has for decades allowed the relatively open access to students of lower socioeconomic background and is, thus, believed to have functioned as a mechanism of, mainly upward, intergenerational social mobility, improving social position and living standards across generations. Relevant statistics reveal that, since the 1980s, secondary and tertiary education in Greece have expanded considerably and, currently, Greece has the highest enrolment rates in bachelor’s programs amongst individuals aged 19-24 years in the OECD (OECD, 2019).
Compared to most of its European peers, Greece indeed has a significantly higher rate of intergenerational mobility in education when the latter is defined as the percentage of individuals having achieved a higher level of education than their parents. However, it has been harder for more disadvantaged individuals to improve their relative social position within their generation, despite the absolute improvement compared to their parents’ educational achievements. As a result, Greece performs far more modestly in terms of intergenerational mobility persistence indicators (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Intergenerational education mobility indicators, 1980s child cohort, high-income economies.
Notes: The probability that children born in the 1980s in Greece have a higher education attainment level than the highest level of their parents is 70%. By contrast, the probability that a child with parents from the bottom half of the educational attainment distribution moves to the top quantile for the 1980s cohort is limited to 14%
Source: Global Database on Intergenerational Mobility (2020), World Bank
In Greece, access to tertiary education is relatively open with no tuition fees applying for undergraduate and, in some cases, also post-graduate studies. It is also exams-based, which implies that students with unequal performances may have unequal life prospects. If cognitive performance is systematically distributed across the student population according to household or parental socioeconomic characteristics such as wealth, education or occupation, then adolescents from disadvantaged households would face unequal chances in their future career and overall life prospects compared to their more advantaged counterparts.
An econometric analysis aimed at evaluating the role of socioeconomic status on the cognitive performance and future plans of Greek high-school students has revealed several types of such gradients and inequalities. Greek students stemming from more favourable socioeconomic backgrounds have performed better over time across the test domains of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) compared to their more disadvantaged counterparts (Figure 2).
Figure 2. PISA scores per subject, by quintile of the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status (ESCS), Greece 2018.
Note: GLCM (Global Competence) first introduced in the latest 2018 survey (multi-dimensional domain measuring the students’ capacity in understanding and acting on global and intercultural issues)
Source: PISA micro data set, authors’ calculations
They also have higher aspirations with respect to their future education and career plans such as pursuing tertiary education or a professional or managerial career.
Parental socioeconomic position appears to be channeled to children mainly through cultural and emotional routes, in addition to private school attendance. Parental education and occupation effects are also important but differ by domain and between parents. Other important insights from the analysis include the role of student gender, immigrant background and bullying on student performance and future plans. These relationships and gradients between socioeconomic status and student outcomes have been significant and broadly stable in Greece since 2000, when the first PISA survey took place. However, while the performance gap has been persistent and relatively stable across time, our cross-country analysis shows that Greece is not an outlier in terms of the relationships between socioeconomic background and student performance in PISA (Figure 3).
Figure 3. PISA performance in Greece versus the OECD & EU average, by quintile of the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status (ESCS), 2018.
Source: PISA micro data set, authors’ calculations.
Therefore, the poor performance of Greece in intergenerational mobility persistence indicators compared to peers seems to stem mostly from characteristics of the educational system, the labour market and the economy that affect professional development after the age of 15. Examples of such factors include the extensive shadow education system to prepare students for university entry exams, stronger presence of family-run professional offices and small-size enterprises in the economy, higher share of self-employment and a stronger degree of nepotism, favoritism, and political influence for employment entry in certain segments of the public and private sector.
Greece could do much more towards the direction of safeguarding and further improving the inclusiveness of its education system in order to promote social equity for the younger generations in a broader sense. Based on the findings, some policies which could have a material impact include migrant integration policies, the provision of incentives to households prioritising educational and cultural possessions, family policies and pre-school education services enhancing work-life balance for parents so as to enable them to provide better emotional support towards their children, and psychosocial support services for students including effective measures to combat bullying.
Further, intergenerational mobility in education can be enhanced through modern and effective career guidance programs, with a particular emphasis on immigrant students and students stemming from a disadvantaged background. This point may indeed be crucial – while Greek students exhibit relatively high aspirations with respect to following higher education studies, they also report lower aspirations for managerial or highly paid professional careers compared to students in other OECD and EU countries. Guidance programs should also target gender differences in order to combat sectoral segregation and lifelong gender gaps (such as in earnings) at an early stage.
Also, the fact that students attending private schools have a consistent advantage compared to counterparts attending public schools in Greece provides evidence that there is a need to upgrade the services offered by the pre-tertiary public education system. The Greek public education system has chronically faced significant challenges which, amongst others, include the absence of effective evaluation and assessment mechanisms for teaching staff and curricula and the sizeable shadow education system running in parallel to the formal system to prepare the students for university entry exams. These particular deficiencies pose a very large financial burden for households with children in Greece, in addition to undermining equity amongst the student population. Seen from a social equity perspective, resolving these chronic issues becomes imperative, in order to offer Greek students fair chances in education and in life irrespective of their background.
*More details on the research project “Intergenerational Mobility in Education in Greece” can be found here. The Hellenic Observatory hosted a research seminar on the topic on 28 February 2023. For more information please visit the event page.