Fields of study: Horizontal or vertical differentiation within higher education sectors?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper assesses the extent to which fields of study and postsecondary institutional sectors serve as mechanisms to preserve social stratification in Scottish higher education. We develop a hierarchy of fields of study based on their social-class and income returns, avoiding problems of circularity that occur when fields of study are ranked by their selectivity. We combine data from representative surveys from six cohorts of Scottish school leavers with data from labor force surveys and higher education statistics to examine associations between social background and field of study within types of Scottish higher education, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s when participation in Scottish higher education was expanding rapidly. The results indicate that, when fields of study are ranked according to their labor market returns, they do not serve as a mechanism of social reproduction. Indeed, within the newer sectors of Scottish postsecondary education we see evidence of persons from less advantaged backgrounds choosing more lucrative fields of study: students from working class origins tend to be overrepresented in high-return fields of study in Scotland’s higher education colleges (upgraded to university status as part of the expansion) which, though less prestigious than the old, established universities, are venues in which programs such as engineering, technology, business, and allied health fields – among the more remunerative fields – are concentrated. Although returns to fields of study do not increase inequality by social origins, they do magnify gender inequality, as men are overrepresented and women are underrepresented in fields with greater labor market returns.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-23
Number of pages12
JournalResearch in Social Stratification and Mobility
Early online date21 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


Dive into the research topics of 'Fields of study: Horizontal or vertical differentiation within higher education sectors?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this