Victoria Rolfe
Photo: Kristina Modigh

Educational researcher uncovering inequalities

With a penchant for quantitative methods and an award-winning dissertation under her belt, educational researcher Victoria Rolfe examines issues of equity in schools.

 "In almost every society, educational outcomes and socioeconomic background are highly linked. But the question is what the connection looks like. Do we teach wealthier children more advanced subjects? Do we give them more opportunities to learn?" 

Victoria Rolfe is a researcher at the Department of Education and Special Education with a strong interest in educational equity. She defended her doctoral thesis, Exploring socioeconomic inequality in educational opportunity and outcomes in Sweden and beyond, in the spring of 2021. In the preface, she recalls growing up in England, where pupils were divided according to their assessed mathematical ability. This division determined both the teaching that was offered and what grade was possible to achieve. At the age of sixteen, Victoria was "on an express track" to studies at prestigious universities, while some of her peers were "barely in the station". 

Numbers tell a story

How different the pupils' opportunities were wasn't something that the teenager Victoria reflected much on. But later, in her thesis, she could demonstrate how the education systems of Anglo-Saxon countries particularly have tended to widen socioeconomic gaps. 

 "Working with big amounts of data, it often gives a lot of context to things that I've seen as a teacher or I've experienced as a student", she says. 

It was as a master's student at the IMER programme (International Master's Programme in Educational Research) at the University of Gothenburg that Victoria discovered how much she appreciated working with quantitative methods. 

"Initially, I was interested in policy issues. But then, we took a course on quantitative analysis with Kajsa Yang-Hansen, which I appreciated a lot. In my master's thesis, I used data from the UGU database. I felt that I really liked the process and that I wanted to continue on the same track as a doctoral student," says Victoria Rolfe. 

Victoria Rolfe with her IEA certificate
Receiving the IEA certificate opened new doors for Victoria Rolfe.

An "outstanding" thesis

A PhD position opened up that suited Victoria perfectly. With Kajsa Yang Hansen as supervisor, she became a member of the research environment Prerequisites, Education, Results (FUR), to which she still belongs. Less ideal was the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic struck with full force at the end of her dissertation work. 

 "I was about to focus fully on my writing when the pandemic started. So, at a stage when I needed to be very structured, all the structure in the world disappeared. It was a very challenging time."

Despite the challenges, the thesis was not only completed, but was also awarded the "Bruce H. Chopin Memorial Award for outstanding thesis" for 2022. An award given by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) to one thesis per year where data is used from one of the organisation's international studies, such as TIMSS (Trends In International Mathematics And Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress In International Reading Literacy Study).

"Receiving the award boosted my confidence a lot. It also happened at a time when I was waiting to find out if I would be permanently employed, which happened a few months later. So, it was a really good autumn semester for me. And the award has already yielded some interesting conversations with people from all over the world", says Victoria Rolfe.

Not offering children and young people equity in education is a waste of human, financial and societal resources.

With equity in focus

Opportunities to learn (OTL) is a central concept in Victoria Rolfe's thesis and her ongoing research. Although it is well known that pupils' performance is affected by how much they are exposed to the syllabus, different groups of pupils are given different opportunities to learn the content. A social waste, according to Victoria Rolfe:

 "Not offering children and young people equity in education is a waste of human, financial and societal resources. There is a strong link between education, income level, and health. Both on an individual level and between parents and children. So, addressing the differences in opportunities can affect people's lifelong situation, even for the next generation down."

Text: Kristina Modigh

Victoria Rolfe's best advice for doctoral students

”Try to find some balance. If you've done maybe 40 or 50 hours a week, that's a lot of work. The next ten hours is not going to do you any better. Make sure to do something else. It can just be to see your friends, watch TV, go for a walk, and talk about other things.”

Getting coursework done sooner rather than later so that you don't have to panic and do your courses while you're finishing up in the last year is good as well.”

“Go to all of the open seminars and ask lots of questions related to your topic. And if it's not related to your topic, go and learn other things because you might end up teaching in a course that is not your specialty. You'll probably end up supervising someone who is not in your specialty. So knowing the basics of other parts of the department and faculty is good. And enjoy your time!