Give non-graduates more respect, says ex-Tory minister

Gap between graduates and non-graduates is UK’s ‘biggest social divide’, Baroness Stowell warns

September 21, 2021
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The UK’s political leaders must address the “deficit of respect” between graduates and those without a degree or face more political instability, a former Tory minister has warned.

In an essay for the Social Market Foundation, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, who was communities minister then leader of the House of Lords in David Cameron’s government, says that the gaps between graduates and non-graduates is currently the UK’s “biggest social divide”.

She points out that academic research shows that education, not class, has become a central dividing line in politics across the Western world.

In the UK, this was most visible in the European Union referendum, where only a quarter of people with a postgraduate degree voted to leave, whereas more than two-thirds of those with no qualifications did so.

Then in 2019, the Conservatives outperformed Labour by more than two to one among those whose highest qualifications did not exceed GCSE.

“The surprising results and disruption we’ve seen via the ballot box in recent years – welcome or otherwise – have been in large part delivered by people with fewer academic credentials.  But they are not the people who don’t understand or who need to change”, the former chair of the Charity Commission writes.

Baroness Stowell, who attended an FE college in Nottingham before becoming a senior BBC executive, writes that the divide must be addressed for Britain to have a “healthy, happy society” but “we won’t succeed if we believe the problem is that half the population is insufficiently educated”.

“When faced with criticism or opposition, many in the political-media class never imagine it is they who haven’t understood the problem,” she explains.

The problem is that those with the biggest influence and the main decision-makers on how the UK is run are now almost exclusively graduates, according to Baroness Stowell.

“As we have increased accessibility to higher education, obtaining a degree, more than anything else, determines whether people are able to get on, to enter the better-paid, higher-status professions,” she writes. This is what determines whether their views are taken seriously, she adds.

Those without the same educational attainment “find that they and their – legitimate and reasonable – opinions are dismissed. We’re in for a lot more disruption via the ballot box if we don’t stop and reverse this trend,” she says.

She says this is demonstrated by the widening gap between graduates and non-graduates in their trust of government, institutions, business leaders and other professionals.

Baroness Stowell writes that the problem can be fixed “but the solutions are less about education and more about attitude”.

“The answer is not some kind of monoculture where we are all educated to think and be the same.”

To address the problem, she says “graduates and decision-makers” must compromise and recognise that knowledge is gained in various ways. This should involve recognising that diversity in educational attainment is a positive aspect and for leaders to promote “social norms” that include respecting non-graduates.

This will involve raising the status and authority of jobs that don’t require a degree – such as bus and train drivers, managers of shops and those who provide services, such as delivery drivers and postmen – and paying them better.

“This is not a PR exercise. It’s about bosses and leaders changing behaviours to put right where we’re going wrong,” she writes.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Perhaps a comparison with the attitudes of the nomenklatura in the former Soviet Union would be relevant, given that it was a (nominally) class free society.

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