Education as a source of growing social and political cleavage in Great Britain

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Social Sciences

Abstract

Educational attainment, particularly obtaining a university degree, is rapidly becoming the key social and political cleavage in modern Britain. The growing importance of university education in shaping the contours of public opinion has been evident for some while but was brought to the forefront of public debate during the EU referendum.

The deepest gradient in the Brexit vote was between graduates and non-graduates, a cleavage which now also dominates preferences between Labour and the Conservatives as well as a range of other areas of public controversy and debate. This has led to a focus amongst politicians and the commentariat on what is driving the growing divide, with some attributing the phenomenon to liberal biases of the academic community. This, in turn, has led to a series of high profile critiques of university governance and funding and allied concerns of the emergence of a 'culture war'.

This PhD dissertation will apply advanced statistical methods to a range of key ESRC longitudinal data resources (the cohort studies, Understanding Society, the British Election Study) to investigate the nature and causes of educational polarization in modern Britain. As well as describing how public opinion has been shaped by increasing graduate concentration since the early 1990s, the thesis will address the extent to which the distribution of public attitudes are shaped, on the one hand, by non-random selection into universities and, on the other, the educational and experiental effects of university education.

Publications

10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000673/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2122717 Studentship ES/P000673/1 30/09/2018 29/09/2022 Elizabeth Simon
 
Description The aim of this studentship award was to gain a fuller understanding of how education has become a source of growing social and political cleavage in Great Britain, through applying advanced statistical methods to key ESRC longitudinal data resources. Specifically, it sought to address the extent to which the distribution of British public attitudes has been shaped, on the one hand, by non-random selection into universities and, on the other, the educational and experiental effects of university education.
Thus far, this award has generated substantial new knowledge in this area. Firstly, research undertaken has provided a more complete picture of why modern British politics divide along educational lines. Using British Election Study Internet Panel data, and a novel mediation methodology, research associated with this award has demonstrated that vote choices have divided along educational lines in recent British political contests (the EU referendum, 2017 and 2019 General Elections) largely because educational groups exhibit divergent economic orientations, cultural attitudes, and cue-taking behaviours. Only armed with this knowledge of why British politics are actually dividing along educational lines can we make informed predictions about this divide's potential future impact or make any endeavours to reconcile these stark educational divisions, which have the potential to endanger social cohesion and the functioning of British democracy.
Secondly, research undertaken has contributed to de-mystifying the link between higher education participation and liberal values. Using Harmonised British Household Panel and Understanding Society data (from the period 1994-2020), and a within-sibling design, allowed the identification of education's 'true' causal effect on British individuals' political values. In doing so, research associated with this award has found that, contrary to popular assumptions about education's liberalising role, the education-political values linkage is spurious. Studying at university does not make us more liberal, it is simply that those who experience pre-adult environments conducive to the formation of certain values disproportionately enrol at universities.
An update on the key finding of this award will be provided upon award completion.
Exploitation Route The key findings generated facilitate calculated speculation as to how shifts in parties' policies could alter educational allegiances. Findings also allow consideration as to how the changing educational concentration of the British population will impact mass opinion. They suggest that generations of increasing HE enrolment rates, which result in the degree-educated proportion of the British population rising every year, will not, by themselves, result in any long-term shift in public opinion. Both of these insights will be of interest to those seeking to predict the outcomes of future British political contests - including pollsters, politicians and academics.
The novel finding that higher education participation is not the cause of British graduates' liberal values, and rather that this linkage is driven by self-selection mechanisms - those who experience pre-adult environments conducive to the formation of certain values disproportionately choose to enrol at universities - is of interest to the government, and institutions such as the Department for Education. It tells us that higher education does not play an un-anticipated liberalising function in society - rather, it simply acts to train the next generation for their roles in the modern economy. This finding also serves as a basis for rejecting claims, popular among right-leaning commentators, that British HE institutions are hotbeds of left-wing bias. Tackling such discourses is likely to have important consequences for the funding, legitimacy and status of universities.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice