Germany’s election and the educational polarisation of voters

Unlike in the UK and the US, German graduates tend to vote in quite similar ways to other citizens. But not in the case of the AfD, writes David Matthews

September 26, 2017
Queue of voters

Germany has voted. Angela Merkel is weakened, but she remains chancellor and is now seeking new coalition partners for government.

Instead of focusing on what the election means for German higher education and research policy – which probably won’t become clear until months of coalition negotiations have concluded – I want to highlight some interesting voting patterns among German graduates.

In the United States and the UK, it’s now a commonplace observation that voters seem increasingly divided by levels of education rather than traditional cleavages like levels of income. In the ballots of 2016 and 2017, graduates tended to take the side of more open, pro-cosmopolitan parties and politicians (Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, Hillary Clinton, Remain in the UK's EU referendum) against more closed, nationalistic forces (Theresa May’s Conservatives, Leave, Donald Trump).

You can certainly quibble with these groupings, but the overall trend is unmistakable.

For example, in this year’s UK general election, graduates were 10 percentage points less likely to back the Conservatives, and nine percentage points more likely to vote for Labour, than the broader voting public.

The divide was even starker last year during the EU referendum, when 68 per cent of graduates voted to remain.

Meanwhile, in the US election, Clinton won college graduates by a nine percentage point margin, while Trump won everyone else by eight points. “This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Is the same thing happening in Germany? Ostensibly not – German graduates seem more in line with their fellow citizens than in the UK or the US. This is most clearly visible when you look at the graduate vote share for Germany’s political parties arranged on the left to right political spectrum:

 

German graduates voting patterns

 

 In terms of the bigger parties, graduates were a little less likely than other voters to vote for Merkel’s conservatives (CDU/CSU) – but exactly the same was true of the social democrats (SPD).

Graduates were both more likely to opt for the radically left-wing Die Linke – and the almost diametrically opposed (at least on economic matters) Free Democratic Party (FDP). This feels very different from the US and UK, where graduates have come down heavily on one side or the other in the votes of the past two years.

Why might this be? A couple of potential reasons spring to mind. Germany is famed for the quality of its vocational education, which, although under pressure, still offers the hope of a well respected and remunerated life course that does not require university. Non-graduates are perhaps less likely to be economically “left behind” than in other countries.

There is also still no real equivalent of the Ivy League, Oxbridge or the grandes écoles in Germany, meaning that attending (a certain type of) university is arguably less of a prerequisite for power and influence.

But have a look at the chart again – there are nonetheless signs that educational polarisation is beginning to take root in Germany.

Graduates heavily backed the Greens, who, aside from their environmental policies, are known as supporters of multiculturalism, and have several high-profile leaders with a Turkish family background. The AfD on the other hand are emphatically against multiculturalism and have leaders who have made a series of brazenly racist statements; they were largely shunned by voters who have been to university.

As the AfD’s entry into parliament shows, Germany is not immune from the divisions afflicting the UK, the US and many other European countries. It will be interesting to see if the country becomes just as polarised on educational grounds as well.

David Matthews is a reporter for Times Higher Education. He is based in Berlin.

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