Skills and Inequality: Political Parties, Economic Coordination and the Variety of Skill Formation Regimes in Western European Countries

35 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2012 Last revised: 23 Sep 2012

See all articles by Marius R. Busemeyer

Marius R. Busemeyer

University of Konstanz - Department of Politics and Management

Date Written: 2012


In a seminal contribution to the fledgling comparative literature on welfare state policies, Harold Wilensky made the fateful claim that “education is special” (Wilensky 1975: 3). More specifically, he argued that:

“A nation’s health and welfare effort is clearly and directly a contribution to absolute equality, the reduction of differences between rich and poor, young and old, minority groups and majorities; it is only a secondary contribution to equality of opportunity. In contrast, a nation’s educational effort, especially at the higher levels, is chiefly a contribution to equality of opportunity - enhanced mobility for those judged to be potentially able or skilled; it is only a peripheral contribution to absolute equality.” (Wilensky 1975: 6)

In other words, Wilensky argued that education needs to be assessed and analyzed separately from other kinds of social policies, because in contrast to these, its primary purpose is not necessarily to mitigate socio-­economic inequalities. Being a meritocratic good, the promotion of educational opportunities entails both private benefits in the form of wage increases for the better educated as well as collective benefits. Thus, Wilensky’s claim is not entirely unjustified. Nevertheless, it has contributed to (or at least it symbolizes) the neglect of the study of education in comparative welfare state research as well as comparative political science (Busemeyer/Nikolai 2010; Busemeyer/Trampusch 2011; Iversen/Stephens 2008; Jakobi et al. 2010).

It is the purpose of this book to contribute to the reintegration of the analysis of education and training systems into comparative welfare state research, which is both possible and necessary (see Iversen/Stephens 2008: 602). This book will show that there are multiple connections between education and other parts of the welfare state. Neglecting these connections has prevented us from developing a deeper understanding of the driving forces of welfare state reforms, socio-­economic inequality and the citizens’ perceptions of and attitudes towards the welfare state. Thus, paraphrasing Wilensky, education may be different from other kinds of social policies, but variations in the institutional set-­‐up in the education and training systems do have enormous consequences with regard to the distribution of skills, income and wealth in the political economy at large. Political actors are very aware of the distributive implications of institutional choices in education policy (Ansell 2008, 2010) as the balance of power between politico-­economic coalitions during critical junctures of historical development had a lasting impact on the formation of different development paths of education and training regimes in advanced industrial democracies.

Thus, in brief, the book traces the political and institutional connections between education and the welfare state at large in three domains: The first is politics. I argue and show that those politico-­‐economic coalitions supporting the expansion of the welfare state in the postwar decades have also been influential in shaping the guise of education and training systems. The second is outcomes. Variations in the institutional set-­‐up of the education and training system, in particular the importance of vocational education and training relative to academic education as well as the division of labor between public and private sources of financing, affect the distribution of income and wealth in the political economy. Finally, I will also document the effects of educational institutions on citizens’ attitudes and preferences vis­‐à-‐vis the welfare state, providing the essential micro­‐foundation for explaining the durability and sustainability of welfare state arrangements.

Suggested Citation

Busemeyer, Marius R., Skills and Inequality: Political Parties, Economic Coordination and the Variety of Skill Formation Regimes in Western European Countries (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Marius R. Busemeyer (Contact Author)

University of Konstanz - Department of Politics and Management ( email )

Universitaetstrasse 10
Konstanz, D-78457

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