Graduates have “the most tolerant attitudes towards immigrants and benefit recipients”, even when factors such as their income and social class are taken into account.
A study carried out by researchers from NatCen Social Research and the Open University for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills looked at differences in social attitudes between graduates and those with other levels of education. It found that some of these differences were related to being a graduate, rather than to other background factors associated with being a graduate, such as income level and type of job.
“Higher education is expected to help students respond to the changing needs of society, but the expanding numbers of graduates, with their distinctive attitudes, may well be driving further changes in society,” says the research paper, published by BIS and titled The Effect of Higher Education on Graduates’ Attitudes: Secondary Analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey.
Julia Griggs, senior researcher at NatCen, said: “We know already that graduates often have different views about political and social issues from others in the UK, but this has often been explained away as a result of income or social differences that higher education represents.
“This research suggests instead that there is something unique about the experience of going to university that influences our outlook on life.”
The research was carried out to “enhance our understanding of how (higher) education affects a wider set of attitudinal outcomes”, says the paper.
It found that there were “strong significant associations between educational level and attitudes even when taking into account other background characteristics”.
The paper adds that “in many cases the attitudinal ‘benefits’ of education increase incrementally”, with graduates displaying “the highest levels of political engagement and efficacy”, “the greatest degree of environmental knowledge, concern and willingness to take action for the sake of the environment” and “the most tolerant attitudes towards immigrants and benefit recipients”.
“Regression analysis results” – controlling for variables such as income – suggest that “the relationship between someone’s educational level and their attitudes is particularly robust in terms of immigration and welfare benefits”, the paper continues.
On immigration, the research found that “approximately 20 per cent of those with a degree level qualification felt that immigration generally had a negative impact on the economy compared to more than 60 per cent of the no qualification and GCSE groups”.
It adds: “After controlling for other background characteristics, differences by educational level remained significant.”
Those with GCSEs or no qualifications were most likely to feel that immigration was bad for the country’s economy and undermined cultural life – “a difference of approximately 20 percentage points when compared to graduates”.
Although graduates were “more welcoming and appreciative of immigration and immigrants”, 59 per cent of graduates believed that the number of immigrants should be reduced, the research notes.
On welfare, a “large minority” of graduates (43 per cent) agreed with the statement that “if welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet”.
But this proportion was “considerably lower” than among the other educational groups, where 61 per cent of those with an HE or FE qualification below degree level agreed with the statement. The differences “remained significant” after controlling for other background characteristics, the paper says.
In its introduction, the paper says “possible explanations” for the attitudinal differences between graduates and non-graduates include “pre-existing differences between the sorts of people who go into higher education and those who do not”.
It also notes the potential effects from higher education in terms of “enhanced cognitive and general academic skills, learned capacity to empathise with other people’s viewpoints, exposure to liberal values and mixing with a wider variety of groups than might otherwise have been the case”.