Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes, everybody knows

(Leonard Cohen, 1988)

Lyrics from the great Leonard Cohen express the everyday realities of thousands of young New Zealanders who consistently find their pathways to riches and the ‘good life’ not only blocked but virtually non-existent. As Kirsty Johnston in her article in the The New Herald shows us, the six universities she assessed have only 17% of its student body made up of young people from deciles 1 to 3, while those from deciles 8 – 10 make up over 50%. But it gets worse. When you look at the big earner subjects; law, medicine and engineering, the student body of these disciplines have only 6% from decile 1 – 3, and only 1% of students are from the lowest decile compared to 60% from deciles 8 – 10. Its impact is enormous. If higher education is meant to be the driver of social mobility (which actually we don’t measure in New Zealand), it is failing those at the bottom end miserably. Government proudly announce the massive income earning potential of those graduating in law, medicine and engineering yet we are celebrating those who already have the best opportunities and the economic safety net to continue the family tradition of staying wealthy. We are not creating social mobility but are in fact reproducing class inequality. As Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) remind us the consequences of such inequality is colossal for both the individual and New Zealand. Inequality creates the environment for poor health, high crime, greater social problems and feelings of failure amongst the most vulnerable which then has consequences on us all. We all pay a price for our failure as a nation to address this.

What Kirsty Johnston also does is draw our attention to how class inequality operates in education. What we see is the ability of the rich and wealthy to mobilise their resources and capitals (economic, cultural and social) to ensure that their children’s position is maintained. Privilege that comes with such wealth, is both powerful and invisible, usually being denied or ignored and allowed to continue unabated (France et al, 2018). But privilege does not just start at university, it is accumulative operating across the life course. It starts early, when the rich and wealthy put their children into the best kindergartens, then the best primary schools, and the best secondary schools. They even ‘buy their way in’ by purchasing houses in areas that guarantee access to these schools. The ‘post code lottery’, as it is called, is not a lottery for the rich. They know what they need to do to guarantee their children’s future and they have the resources to make it happen. Once university is completed the affluent middle class and wealthy are then able to help their children get access to the best internships and the best jobs. They have the networks and again the economic and cultural capital to help their children in this process. What is usually claimed by the middle classes is that ‘success’ is achieved by ‘hard work’ and ‘effort’ (suggesting that the poor don’t work hard or make the effort) claiming it is a ‘level playing field’ when in reality it is anything but a level playing field for the poor. Of course the rich and wealthy know how the ‘game is played’; they know what they need to do and how to ‘play the system’ to their advantage. Stephen Ball, a Professor of Education in the UK, shows us clearly how the middle class ‘position’ themselves and mobilise their capitals in the schooling system ensuring that their children get the best resources and best support (Ball, 2003).

So what is to be done? Firstly, we all have to take some responsibility for addressing this issue. As Professor Martin Thrupp states in Kirsty’s article, ‘…middle class advantage raises ethical challenges for all of us who are middle class parents: to recognise the line to be drawn between advantaging our own children and doing this at the expense of other people’s children’. But it is also a responsibility of schools and universities. It was interesting that TECs response to questions from Kirsty Johnston admitted its current goals are focusing on Māori and Pacific participation only and Chris Whelan from Universities NZ also openly admits there is no policy in New Zealand universities about widening participation for other groups.  Isn’t it to everyone’s advantage that as many of our young people as possible have the opportunity to participate in higher education? Finally, government should be looking very closely at is policies to assess who benefits from its policies. Recent evidence from Australia shows how the tax and transfer system operates across different income quintiles in Australia showing ‘…that the bottom 20% of Australians receive just $6.1 billion in such benefits, while the top 20% receive ten times as much, at over $68 billion.’ (Dawson and Smith (2018:6). Yet this ‘invisible hand of the state’ is given little (or no) attention in debates about the causes of inequality between the rich and poor. If we are committed to a socially just society in New Zealand we then need to confront and tackle these issues head on.


Ball, S (2003) Class Strategies and the Education Market: the middle class and social advantage, London, Routledge Falmer

Johnston, K. (2016) Want to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer? Don’t grow up poor, New Zealand Herald, 15th September 2018

France, A., Roberts, S., and Wood, B. (2018) Youth, social class and privilege in the antipodes: Towards a new research agenda for youth sociology, Journal of Sociology, Vol. 54 362-380

Dawson, E. and Smith, W. (2018) The Cost of Privilege, Canberra, Anglicare


Alan France is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean in the School of Social Sciences (Te Pokapū Pūtaiao Pāpori) at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.


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