An economist's perspective on youth development

‘Social inequality starts at an early age. Increasing equality of opportunity for children is vital to their future – and contributes to greater prosperity in a broader sense,’ says Thomas van Huizen, an education and labour economist and an associate professor at the Utrecht University School of Economics. In this interview, he talks about his research into pre-school education, the use of big data and the added value of interdisciplinary research.

"Inequality of opportunity is worrying and arises very early in life. I hope that my research can contribute to closing that gap."

As an economist, Van Huizen is interested in youth development. Many people will think of taxes or shares when they think of economics, rather than child and youth research. But at its core, economics is about wealth and its distribution. An important question, therefore, is how policy can contribute to a society in which people are able to flourish. This can be looked at in various policy areas, including education and childcare. Educational economists, for example, examine the effects of policies on children's development, their academic outcomes and how they perform later in life. That focus on isolating the effects of policy is, in my opinion, the strength of the discipline. The winners of the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics were likewise decisive in this development of the economic sciences.’

In 2019, Van Huizen joined the Programme Committee of the UU-wide Dynamics of Youth child and youth theme, representing the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. ‘I had just started working on a major multidisciplinary project on the effects of early childhood education, Project EVENING. Dynamics of Youth focuses on the same themes – so it aligned perfectly,’ says Van Huizen.

Pre-school education

The four-year research project EVENING, which runs until 2023, studies a large group of two- to three-year-olds. Previous studies show that children with low-skilled parents already lag behind children from a high socio-economic group significantly at an early age. ‘Inequality of opportunity is worrying and arises very early in life. I hope that my research can contribute to closing that gap,’ says Van Huizen.

The government has now allocated additional sources to increase investment in pre-school education. For example, more hours are currently available at pre-school for children with a language deficiency or educational disadvantage than before. The new policy likewise aims to boost quality. Whether these measures are effective and similarly lead to pre-school offerings with richer educational content is also examined in the EVENING project. Initial findings show that groups offering more hours of pre-school education provide richer educational content.

Big data

Van Huizen is convinced that big data combined with interdisciplinary youth research will help develop better policies to close the opportunity gap. ‘We can analyse big data, such as results of primary school final exams and data from baby clinics, as well as more specific data that was collected, for example, during home visits. This combination of different types of data provides valuable insights,’ says Van Huizen.

Scientific & international collaboration

‘Educational economics is about the impact of education policy. How can policy contribute to solving social problems such as inequality of opportunity? This field of research is therefore crucial within the interdisciplinary focus of child and youth research at Utrecht University,’ says Van Huizen.

'By working together more, you strengthen each other's research – and therefore are able to arrive at better policy insights.’

Last June, he held an online conference on inequality in child and youth development for researchers together with colleagues from the University of Oslo. ‘There's a major project going on in Norway that involves psychologists, pedagogues and economists collaborating with one another. It is very inspiring to see how they approach that study. Economics focuses on isolating an effect using certain methods, while psychology deals with the question of how to measure a child's development. 

Social impact

Een klasje jonge kinderen leren op de kinderopvang.
Children are learning in preschool.

Van Huizen hopes to get more young academics interested in Dynamics of Youth, in addition to the teaching and research they do. ‘Participation can lead to interesting collaborations – both with academic and civic partners. Dynamics of Youth gives researchers an opportunity to not just be part of their own project team, but to be part of a larger whole. So my appeal to young academics comes down to this: make it work to your advantage!’

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