Imagine the European Union referendum as a misty medieval battlefield, with the two sides lined up against each other. What is the dominant make-up of the two armies glowering at each other before the bloodletting begins? According to many academic experts on polling, it is graduates v non-graduates.
University of Bristol researchers, writing on the London School of Economics and Political Science’s British Politics and Policy blog, recently detailed their analysis of YouGov polling data on the referendum.
They found “substantial differences – especially among the middle-aged and the old – in their declared propensity to vote for Brexit according to their [educational] qualifications”. Older people with degrees “are only two-thirds as likely to vote to leave the EU as older people with no qualifications”, they said.
The fact that graduates are more likely to favour EU membership is of practical use to the Remain camp – but even more significantly may tell us much about the increasing polarisation of the UK’s jobs market and society.
Once the authors of the referendum research – Ron Johnston, Kelvyn Jones and David Manley, all of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences – had isolated educational differences as key, they used census data on levels of education by age in every local authority area to model the probability of each area’s electorate voting for Brexit.
“South Staffordshire has the highest proportion favouring departure from the EU…followed by Havering, Gravesham, Boston, King’s Lynn, Mansfield, and Tendring (which includes Clacton),” they wrote.
“The areas giving least support to Brexit are Lambeth, Hackney, Edinburgh, Haringey, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Brighton – in general, places with fewer old people than the first group and many more graduates.”
The areas judged most likely to back Brexit do not have universities. Most of the areas where Brexit support is likely to be weakest have at least two universities.
The distinctiveness and importance of graduates’ social and political attitudes has already attracted interest from researchers. A November 2015 research paper for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, titled “The effect of higher education on graduates’ attitudes”, was based on data gathered in the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey.
Although the BIS study did not look specifically at the EU referendum, it found that of all groups with different educational levels graduates have “the most tolerant attitudes towards immigrants and benefit recipients”.
One key question posed, but not answered, by the research is whether students are more likely to have generally “liberal” social attitudes anyway, or whether there is something about going to university that changes their views.
John Brennan, emeritus professor of higher education research at the Open University, an author on the BIS paper, offered some potential explanations from the latter category on why graduates tend to be pro-EU.
“Personal experience of mobility might encourage positive attitudes towards Europe and ‘going global’ more generally,” he said. “And of course with so many international students in UK universities, the development of cross-border ties and relationships is bound to be a feature of the higher education experience for many.”
Having a degree v the school of life
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, one of the UK’s foremost academic experts on polling and elections, has written an analysis paper about the EU referendum based on data from opinion polls, the BSA and the British Election Study.
The paper cited BSA data showing that 78 per cent of those with degrees favoured remaining in the EU, against just 15 per cent who wanted a Brexit. Among those with no qualifications, 35 per cent favoured remaining while 55 per cent backed Brexit.
“It’s long been known that this [the referendum] is a battle between graduates and those with little or no educational qualifications, and it’s a battle between older and younger people,” Professor Curtice told Times Higher Education.
He added: “On one side of the coin are people who are university graduates, who are…perfectly happy with a diverse society: they’ve been to university, were used to living in an international environment, many of them will live in London, which is the most diverse city in the world.”
Many people in this group “are operating in a globalised labour market”, including academics who “don’t feel that their jobs are under threat because people come from Greece or Spain”, he said.
Professor Curtice continued: “The other side of the coin is the hotel porter in Margate [in Kent], who says: ‘I don’t understand what my fellow workers say any more because they are all speaking Polish to each other. I’ve not had a pay rise for five years’.”
There are economic arguments suggesting that while “for the most part migration has been good for the British economy…for those at the bottom end of the labour market it may have helped to depress wages”, he noted.
Stephen Bush, special correspondent for the New Statesman, wrote recently that the Remain campaign is "betting big on mobilising early in student areas, as the biggest dividing line in the referendum is not age but education”.
This might suggest that Universities UK’s high-profile Universities for Europe campaign could play an influential role in mobilising the converted to vote.
Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive of UUK, said that the organisation is also mounting a campaign – entirely separate to Universities for Europe – to drive voter registration.
UUK will be “quite dramatically scaling this up in May” and “putting as much time into voter registration as into the whole of the Universities for Europe campaign”, Mr Jarvis said.
The registration drive reflects widespread concerns that the switch to Individual Electoral Registration could have disenfranchised groups such as students: those living in halls could previously be registered en masse by universities. And of course younger people are already less likely to vote than the old.
Mr Jarvis said that the registration campaign was “about the civic duty of universities to encourage democracy by encouraging staff and students to have their say”, not about telling individuals to vote one way or the other – although that is unlikely to convince UUK’s critics in the Brexit camp.
The distinctive social and political attitudes of graduates have implications beyond June’s vote.
Professor Brennan said that research on graduates’ attitudes to the EU referendum should “remind us that the social implications of expanding higher education systems extend well beyond the labour market agendas which receive so much – too much – attention”.
Professor Curtice said of the graduates/non-graduates contrast on the EU: “On the one hand you’ve got a section [of society] which is culturally and economically comfortable with globalisation, on the other hand you’ve people who are culturally and economically challenged by globalisation…This is a referendum as much about different sections of British society as it is anything to do with our relationship with Europe.”