Brexit: a PhD does not make your vote, or your opinion, worth more

Joanna Williams voted Leave, and has been left disappointed by the academy’s reaction to the EU referendum result

June 27, 2016
Brexit, EU referendum
Source: iStock

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me: “I thought you’d have voted Remain,” or: “You don’t seem the type to vote Leave.” Since the referendum result was announced on Friday morning, I’ve been treated as an oddity, a freak, a closet xenophobe now exposed.

It seems that for many of the academics I mix with, I am the only person they know personally who voted for Britain to leave the European Union in last week’s referendum. 

Some appear to see my decision as a personal insult and an act of treachery. In more than one conversation, I have had to state explicitly that I am not racist. I am pro-Europe and pro-migration, and I am also a democrat. I believe that we should be able to vote out the people who make decisions that have an impact upon our lives, and that our own politicians should have to speak to and win over the British demos rather than Eurocrats.

Despite those in favour of remaining in the EU supposedly having tolerance on their side, the past few days have witnessed a great deal of prejudice against those who voted to leave. In the eyes of some, the masses are as ignorant as they are xenophobic. To others, “Leavers” deserve pity, they were lied to and don’t know what is in their own best interests. Well, I am one Leave voter who wants neither abuse nor pity. I stand proudly behind the decision I made.

As academics use lapel badges, office doors and social media to let the rest of the world know that they were on the side of the morally virtuous, we need to consider the impact of scholars becoming so distant – and often so disdainful – of 52 per cent of the electorate.

A week before the referendum, one lecturer proudly took to social media to declare: “I don’t know any academic who is voting Leave,” as if summoning up the collective might of the “intellectual class” lent moral authority to arguments for remaining in the EU.

But the first lesson for universities is that when it comes to democracy, everyone’s vote is equal. Having a PhD does not mean that your vote is worth more. Believing that you know what it is in the best interests of everyone else in society does not give you the right to override the will of the majority. The UK is not a dictatorship of the doctorates.

Far from revealing the moral superiority of scholars, the referendum exposes exactly how out of touch academia has become. A poll conducted by Times Higher Education in the weeks before the referendum suggested that more than 90 per cent of those in universities intended to vote Remain. A similar survey carried out before the most recent general election showed that 46 per cent intended to vote for Labour, and 22 per cent for the Green Party. Over the course of several decades, higher education has become increasingly politically homogeneous and, at the same time, a growing chasm has opened between the intellectuals and the masses.

For many years now, universities have gone out of their way to appear relevant, in touch and anti-elitist. They promote social inclusion and social mobility. Widening participation has become a mantra, with institutions assessed and ranked on how many students they recruit from historically under-represented and disadvantaged social groups. But they have done this at the very same time as the political distance between academics and the public has become enshrined.

Widening participation initiatives, such as the practice of setting “contextual” entry requirements, or offering students from disadvantaged backgrounds a university place with lower A-level results than their peers from more prosperous neighbourhoods, have had the unintended consequence of objectifying working-class people as deserving of pity and lower expectations.

The referendum campaign revealed that ordinary people do not place academics on a pedestal or pay unbridled homage to statistics, research and evidence. Some within universities have expressed outrage at not having their supposedly more informed views treated with greater respect. There is overt contempt for those looked down upon as too ignorant to genuflect to experts.

If higher education is to be genuinely welcoming for people from all backgrounds, then academics need to lay off the insults and the pity, leave their own political bubbles, and actually engage people who voted Leave in conversation.

Under the guise of eradicating intellectual elitism and knocking down ivory towers, academics have constructed moral and political fortifications from which they throw rhetorical rotten tomatoes at ordinary people who dare to think differently from them.

When people within universities all appear to share the same set of opinions, and these opinions are out of kilter with those held by the rest of society, academics need to remember that they have no automatic right to be listened to by the population at large.

Joanna Williams is the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought and Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge.

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Reader's comments (29)

You write a book entitled 'Confronting the fear of Knowledge' and then you praise UK voters for their contempt for evidence.
There's less of a distinction than you think between someone who is racist, and someone who will side with racists in an argument that gets hijacked by fascistic rhetoric.
Sad to relate, I have found many expressing outrage at the decision to leave are lacking in a basic understanding of the issues and are motivated more by the views of people they know than the facts.
Who has claimed "... that when it comes to democracy, everyone’s vote is [not] equal"? This article is so poorly reasoned it is hard to believe it was written sincerely. I suppose it could have been written as a cathartic exercise in response to all the rude PhDs at "The UK's European university - University of Kent". I suppose the highly educated in society should not be looked to for evidence based opinions or leadership. This article certainly displays neither.
This is a very bad article by someone with little understanding of the topic. In the first instance, nobody has ever questioned the fact that each person's vote is of equal value, but that some people have more knowledge and understanding of a topic than others. It is worth listening to them when one makes a decision, which need not comply with the advice. The Leave campaign not only ignored experts but dismissed them with great arrogance and at times insinuating a conspiracy. In the second instance, in giving her rationale for voting Leave, the author suggests that the EU is run by bureaucrats who cannot be voted out. This shows no knowledge of EU institutions, no understanding of the EU Parliament and the Council of Ministers and even less understanding of sovereignty, which is here at best a caricature of Hobbes. In the third instance, people most certainly had a variety of reasons for voting the way they did, but the Leave campaign was above all about immigration and an understanding of sovereignty as power over others rather than pooled sovereignty in an interconnected world. To try to dissociate oneself from the deep xenophobia and colonial construction of the nationalism displayed during the campaign is simply perverse. When siding with xenophobes, one is guilty by association. Leave voters should at least denounce the recent appalling attacks on foreigners and ethnic minorities instead of telling people, as many do in public fora, to 'move on'.
'Guilt by association' - the favourite tactic of McCarthyite persecutors of leftists in the US in the 1950s. This comment generally displays all the arrogance of academics who consider themselves superior to the classes whose interests they often claim to champion. Ironically it also asserts with no evidence whatsoever that the EU is democratic - it merely characterises those who assert otherwise as ignorant. Oh dear, the biggest losers in the referendum process have been leftist intellectuals and journalists who have betrayed the less well-off in the UK and who clearly have little comprehension of what the corporatist EU has done to their lives.
"nobody has ever questioned the fact that each person's vote is of equal value". Really? I guess you didn't hear Shiv Malik from the Guardian on the Moral Maze last night then.
Spot on!
As a German having studied for a PhD in the UK, working, and living there, I would have much preferred the Remain camp to win. That being said, I am growing more and more irritated by the post-referendum behaviour of some of the "remainers ". Labeling the people who voted in favour of Brexit as racists not intellectually equipped to understand what was at stake like the appalling comments above claim,is intellectual laziness at best. Rather that lamenting on the supposedly cataclysmal impact of the British on UK science as it is in the case in a countless number of articles, I'd be much more interested in reading how the British science community can react and play on its strengths to maintain its status in the global stage. Please THES give the floor to contributors that explains how "we take it from there" rather than to overreacting academics incapable or unwilling to critically analyse this matter just because the referendum outcome do no suit them.
Let me try to explain: Europe is peace, commonality, solidarity, friendship--above and beyond the pitfalls of any bureaucracy. Europe is your kids travelling freely, mingelling, studying, learning other languages, and working where they please--after centuries of hate and bloodshed. Europe is feeling home wherever you go. Europe is unity, rather than isolation. Being a European citizen makes you a citizen of the world. Europe is a dream that has become reality. Saying no to Europe takes us back to the Dark Ages. If you vote against Europe, you vote against this first and formost. It's like if you tear down you house to fix a pipe leak. You all seem not to catch that. Besides, blaming the EU for a lack of democratic process is risible and naive. Like perfect democratization is everywhere but in the EU. The EU Parliament, in fact, showed far more integrity, forward-looking vision, diversity than any other national parliament. It's the nationalist forces that relent Europe not vice-versa. We should strive to be "European citizens," then finally "citizens of the world." What you suggests takes us a step back in the process of evolution of the humankind. That's why your peers cannot come at terms with you. And they will never do, as 90% of the academia has clear in mind the ethical implications of your vote that you apparently miss. Ranting about elitism is nonesense.
This article is much needed. I have been appalled at the reaction to a democratic vote on Twitter feeds, on academic blogs and in the corridors. The widespead assumption is that Brexit voters are a mass of latent racism and reaction vulnerable to dog whistle politics, or that we all are victims of their ignorance. This objectification of the voter says a lot about academia, little about the reasons and aspirations of the voters. These reasons were diverse, and included many I do not agree with. The campaign included lies and fear, but also robust debate and a weighing of the issues and priorities. Ultimately the reclaiming of a bit more democracy, the desire to have more control, is entirely positive. Democrats should look forward now at how we use that democracy.
The claim that academics are out of touch is nothing more than a statement that educated, informed, and thoughtful people disagree with you but you're unwilling to give an argument about why they are wrong to do so. Academics aren't out of touch, they think the reasons to remain are good and the reasons to leave are bad. This article is nothing more that a plea that experts abandon their expertise and vote with whoever is leading in any particular poll. As anyone with the most basic of reasoning skills will tell you, the truth of a statement is not determined by whether a majority of people believe it. A truly woeful article.
Ah yes, the opinion of a person who knows a lot about poetry is much more valid than someone who knows a lot about plumbing or bricklaying. Because the poetry expert has to be smarter and a better person; he is an academic! Possessing the inherent values of an academic: educated, informed, thoughtful, expert on all, with the most basic of reasoning skills, always divining the truth of a statement. The brutish savages mucking about in their bogs know not what they do (and are probably racists for disagreeing). Forgive me for I am getting lightheaded so far up here in my ivory tower above the riff-raff, my only sustenance being the sniffing of my own farts.
I challenge Bjb4 to produce evidence for "robust debate" and 'a bit more democracy" The buffoonery of the despicable Nigel Farrage, and the glib lies of Boris Johnson, are evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of such Poujadiste views. That Bjb4 echoes the bigotry of Lady Thatcher is no recommendation, but evidence of quite how backward such a stance is, no matter how glibly the cry of democracy may be repeated, despite the facts.
Joanna, I'd have to agree with many of the sentiments in your article. It was quite obvious that academics had a vested interest in supporting remain; many of them are funded by the EU. The fact that many academics including Stephen Hawking came out and signed open letters in support of remain also didn't serve the remain cause very well. This has to be placed alongside the factory work from Leeds who has been on 18,000 per year for the last 9 years, surrounded by increasing bills with no prospects for a better future. Why couldn't he write an open letter and get noticed in the same way Hawking did ? Did Hawking pay any attention to his world outside of Cambridge and the comfortable bubble that he lives within in Cambridge; all of this funded by the public ? I think we look down on the factory worker from Leeds as being intellectually inferior at our peril. In a democracy his statement should be no different from someone with a PhD. He is seeing and experiencing the world through his own eyes and if he feels he needs to vote for change then you should respect that. That is how democracy works. That is the system that has provided academics with the stable and privileged position to carry out their work and contribute to society.
I couldn’t agree more with this article. I’m very upset by my university peers and friends on social media who are implying leave voters are racist. If it isn’t that, they’re saying they were conned into voting to leave. It’s shocking. A lot of peace loving, middle class, educated voters are being incredibly aggressive right now. This is about accepting everyone’s vote. ALL those views are valid. Now, more than ever we need to be positive, understanding and inclusive to prevent further divides from happening.
I share a lot of the feelings expressed in this article. I also have a PhD and voted Leave, and have received a fair amount of criticism for it. In my case, the reason I voted leave is quite straight forward. I was state educated and did really rather well, following up with a degree and phd in chemistry - at quite some expense to the tax payer I might add. Although I have since achieved a moderate amount of success in my career, it has not been plain sailing. I left academia long ago and every few years since have had to repeatedly change jobs to survive. However, every step of the way I have had to watch foreign nationals come in and take the few science related jobs that are out there, time and time again - jobs that I would be most suited to, and no doubt would have done very well in. Now I am not a racist in any sense of the word, and also consider myself to be of a charitable and moral disposition. But I have a family and a mortgage. So to those people who attack my political stance on this very important topic, I would just like to say that it is easy to take the charitable high road when you have little or no responsibilities. We have one of the best education systems in the world, and I simply can't accept that UK nationals can not compete with internationals when it comes to entering the job market.
Having been through 2 referendums now, I am done with the nasty rhetoric and condescending drivel people feel obliged to spout on social media. In Scotland a lot of Remain voters were SNP (ie: Yes) supporters, so to hear their abuse again was unfortunately unsurprising. I voted Remain but I would never criticise someone for voting a certain way, as long as they did it with full knowledge of the issues. The idea that some people blindly voted or voted purely with their heart, or with racist/prejudicial intentions is frustrating but that will happen when you involve the whole society. I completely disagree that academics and institutions are out of touch - considering there was only 4% difference in the decision. Their beliefs match with 48% of the voting public. I believe HEI's are going to be massively impacted and some modern/new universities may really struggle in the next few years - so that is why I am surprised that anyone working in an HEI would contemplate risking their own job for an unknown, potentially hazardous future. But then I knew many who voted Yes on independence even though their careers were indeed going to hang by a thread afterwards.
well said Joanna your sociological remarks r to the point.. a combination of ideology and self interest explain the overwhelming support of the academic class to the E.U...its quite disappointing that the long liberal academic tradition did not inform the debate in academia with balance and democratic tolerance....instead the prevailing narrative dark vs light is quite orwellian and oversimplified...it seems that the self proclaimed experts have not been following the news the last 6 years....fail to acknowledge the realities of euro crisis, lack of accountability and german dominance...the leading political body that manages the eurozone is Eurogroup which is dominated by the German finance minister & his satellites and it does not EXIST legally. One last thing ...if i can summarise the meaning of European civilization in two words : critical thinking.
All I can say is that everyone I knew voting Leave, when asked what made them decide, could only say 'too many immigrants' or that they really didn't know. A hairdresser I know asked every customer over weeks and found that no one really had any argument for leaving apart from saying there were too many people coming into the country, taking our jobs. When it was pointed out that unemployment figures were the best ever, they seemed amazed. It does seem that many who voted to leave had no idea of the issues and many did not feel they should have been asked to vote due to feeling uninformed. My 90 yr old aunt wanted to vote out because she felt the good old days were better. When asked if she really enjoyed strikes, unemployment, power cuts, extremely high interest rates of the 1970s she said, no, but we didn't have so many immigrants. Like her I was working class but widening participation gave me untold opportunities for education. No one 'made' me believe anything. Education made me question, open my mind, read the essence of different ideologies, made me think in a way I had never done before. PhD has made me read anything and everything and to think through all angles. Some Leave voters had genuine reasons, perhaps a particular EU law affected their business, them personally, but it seems to me that many were whipped up on the immigration issue in the 2-3 days before the vote; I saw so many 'don't knows' turned by this and now many of them seem to regret as they did not realise how their decision would impact the economy, their children and grandchildren. The EU has flaws, everything has flaws, neoliberalism has flaws, but many ordinary people over 50 do not know what the good and bad elements of the EU or globalisation are because they were educated in school at time when learning was not about critical thinking, and personal analysis but had nationalism instilled, even the ideology of domesticity for women. Sorry referendums are democratic, but they also give opportunity to extremists to whip up fear amongst us. I likened it to McCarthyism before the result.
Great, thanks. Counters the claim fro Leave the academics are "out of touch". With our precarious employment, low salaries, diverse backgrounds, and the managerialism we suffer, don't think so.
Unfortunately I find the relevant points of the article are ruined by the need to respond in kind to the negative comments the author has seen or received about their vote. I voted remain in Northern Ireland. Here, I was in the majority. If I am out of touch it is with the majority in England and Wales.
It depends: large bits of England, the cosmopolitan ones, with younger, educated populations, voted to remain.
Quand à flatter, ô mon esprit, non pas! Car le peuple est en haut, mais la foule est en bas. (Victor Hugo)
" when it comes to democracy, everyone’s vote is equal " For a referendum democracy works as long as the idiots' votes are equally shared between the yes and the nos. If this is not the case, anything can happen. Remember that Hitler was elected (which shows that democracy is not 100% reliable).
Hear hear. Actually I don't think that everyone's vote should be equal. I also don't think this referendum was democratic - there's more to democracy than just majority rule. This referendum vote really will lead to a tyranny of a minority imposed upon us by a tyranny of a majority.
If people who think, who have a wide knowledge, who have even acquired a little wisdom share an assessment of a state of affairs, that is not to be condemned simply because it clashes with the views of the uniformed and those who have swallowed lies about £350 million and who read the propaganda in the Mail and Sun. I know the English hate intelligence, for only here can you be too clever for your own good, or by half, but that doesn't stop it being valuable.
The English really do hate intellect, don't they? But then, it's built into the language - too clever by half, too clever for your own good. I guess that the expanding numbers who chorus their denigration of expertise never visit the doctor or dentist.
I am an early career academic from a working-class background, on my 4th temporary contract at the age of 31, and I'm struggling. I've been through 12 years of study and underemployment to get to where I am today without any parental help since being forced to leave home and support myself at 16. I worked full time around school to pay my bills and then managed to scrape the grades to get into a new university, but the potential was always there, once I was able to spend time on my studies. I voted leave, but wouldn't dream of admitting it to my colleagues. I seriously doubt if any of them realise what it is like to be £20 away from sleeping on a park bench, as I have been, and I wonder if they can understand how angry I feel when my father, who works full time in a factory, doesn't smoke, drink or gamble, and yet doesn't earn enough to buy food in the last two weeks of the month. He's 63 and delivers huge packs of free papers in his evenings and weekends and it's taking an enormous toll. He calls me and asks if I can transfer him some money to buy food and I wonder what on earth the government is doing with my taxes. My Dad works about 80 hours a week and he gets kicked from one zero hours contract to the next. Although I have fought very hard to get myself out of the difficult circumstances which surrounded me as I grew up, I only managed it by the skin of my teeth and many others gave up trying. My Dad and I both voted leave, but don't tell my supervisors or they might think I'm a racist! I wonder how many of my colleagues have found themselves at the Job Centre being advised to remove their degrees from their CV in order to get some minimum wage work (between temporary academic contracts) and how many, like me, were forced to attend a four-hour training course at the Job Centre entitled 'How to send an email' even though they'd published two 100,000-word books! What a joke this country is. No wonder so many people have voted to leave. Get out of your middle-class bubbles of comfort and start talking to real people. You might actually learn something!

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