How graduates are reshaping the UK’s electoral landscape

Growing numbers of university leavers, and their concentration in cities, could have a significant impact at the ballot box – and throw up challenges for universities, too

November 28, 2019
Uk polling station
Source: Getty

Throughout political history and across nations, the expansion of electorates through the entry of new groups – freshly enfranchised working-class, female or ethnic minority voters – has caused tremors and, sometimes, outright earthquakes.

While the UK has not seen any dramatic expansion of the electoral franchise in recent decades, a group of dedicated voters often regarded as having a consistent socially liberal outlook has been massively expanded in number: university graduates.

“One thing that has really been missed about political change in Britain is the effect of expansion of higher education on the electorate very broadly, and how it [the graduate expansion] is geographically distributed,” according to Will Jennings, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton.

The split between graduates and non-graduates is increasingly seen – by academics who study elections and by political commentators – to have supplanted social class as the defining political divide across many Western nations, and its influence in the UK’s coming general election will be closely analysed.

Understanding the nature and location of “graduate voters” brings us up against some fundamental issues in the UK’s society and politics: the twin impacts of deindustrialisation and the knowledge economy, the sharpening divide between towns and cities, and the potential for the Conservative Party to move against higher education expansion.

The effects of an expanding higher education sector “in shaping political discourse and preferences” is a research focus for Paula Surridge, a senior lecturer in the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. Explaining why this is an important area of study, Ms Surridge noted that there were now many more voters with degrees in the UK than in the past, so they have “greater impact” – the government’s estimate of the higher education participation rate for the under-thirties stood at 50.2 per cent in 2017-18. The evidence also highlights “how education connects to social liberal values”, she added.

And “issues on that set of values have become more important” in electoral politics in recent years, in the UK and more broadly across the West, said Ms Surridge, singling out areas such as immigration and gay rights.

Ms Surridge, who has examined longitudinal data in the UK 1970 Birth Cohort Study to explore the social attitudes of graduates and non-graduates in a paper published in the Oxford Review of Education, suggested that “some kind of socialisation experience” explains the socially liberal views of graduates: the effect of the broad “experience of higher education – of meeting other students, experiencing the world slightly differently”.

Party affiliation is “more complicated” than the overwhelmingly pro-Remain stance of graduates in the European Union referendum, she said, because it draws from both social and economic outlook – and graduates vary on the latter. But in an election when social outlook might be vying with economic outlook as a key factor in the choices of many voters, then perhaps the graduate versus non-graduate split becomes more of a focal point than in previous polls.

The British Social Attitudes survey shows that at the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats claimed the support of 36 per cent of graduates, followed by the Conservatives (31 per cent) and Labour (27 per cent). In 2015, the Tories were in first place on the graduate vote (37 per cent). But, by 2017, a collapse in graduate support for the Lib Dems and the Brexit vote had led to a realignment: Labour was in the lead (supported by 48 per cent of graduates), followed by the Conservatives (32 per cent) and the Lib Dems (12 per cent).

Is this realignment about to take full hold and full effect in the 2019 general election? An understanding of the geographical flows of graduates can explain their potential electoral impact on constituencies – the ones they head for and the ones they leave behind.

“University graduates become concentrated in urban centres…because that’s where they perceive the jobs to be,” said Charlie Ball, head of higher education intelligence at the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, which analyses patterns of graduate employment. There are opportunities for graduates in non-university towns, “but they tend to be in the SME [small and medium-sized business] sector, and the SME sector reports difficulties accessing students and graduates, because they don’t know the rules of the game,” said Dr Ball.

For all the widening participation efforts in recent years, he continued, people are “still very much more likely to go to university if [their] parents were graduates…So if they go home, they are going back to places that tend to have graduates…Areas that have relatively small numbers of graduates and are HE cold spots…are not attracting graduates into work, and they are not getting graduates back from universities with graduate skills.” The result is that such places “gradually get left out of the improving economy”, Dr Ball added.

The expansion of higher education “has led to this increasing migration of young people away from towns [without universities] towards university towns and cities”, agreed Professor Jennings, a co-founder of the Centre for Towns thinktank, alongside Wigan’s Labour MP Lisa Nandy and data expert Ian Warren. The thinktank aims to move the policy focus beyond cities by conducting research on the economies, demographics and electoral importance of towns.

Professor Jennings cited Canterbury – a shock win for Labour at the 2017 election and home to both the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University – as “a change in a constituency that is driven by expansion of higher education”.

Ms Surridge concurred that the nature of the job market “sucks graduates into those city seats and away from the more rural or the small or medium-sized town seats”. Graduate votes “can be even more effective because they are concentrated rather than spread over the whole country”, she added.

The likely continuing shift in the non-graduate vote will also deliver some shocks for the Conservatives, perhaps lots of them. After the Brexit vote, the Conservative rise in total vote share at the 2017 election was driven by an increase in non-graduate votes, while the party’s graduate vote “stayed flat”, noted Ms Surridge. “It will be that kind of change that could see some of those medium-sized towns turn to the Conservatives [from Labour] that have never been Conservative before.”

Professor Jennings echoed this, saying that “what’s been happening is that towns have been drifting away from Labour”, particularly deindustrialised towns. “A lot of that has to do with the ageing population, the young people moving away, those areas becoming slightly more socially conservative. That’s giving rise to greater polarisation between cities and towns.”

This is “not just about universities, but about how they fit into the knowledge economy” and a city-based economy, he added. If the nation becomes “polarised geographically as well as socially”, that will augment “the politics of resentment”, Professor Jennings warned.

A recent book by the Conservative writer David Skelton, Little Platoons, which calls for the empowering of England’s forgotten towns and offers a critique of post-Thatcher Toryism, laments thatthrough an obsession with university and academia, politicians are effectively supporting a scheme that encourages young people in struggling towns to leave in order to provide their talents to already vibrant major cities”.

But, said Dr Ball, universities are not “making this happen; universities are part of a larger, broader, social and industrial change”. He sets higher education expansion against its essential accompanying context: the way the UK rapidly “deindustrialised and moved to a service economy” following the advent of Baroness Thatcher’s Conservative government.

To accompany her programme, Lady Thatcher “realised very early on that we would need a much larger graduate population…John Major carried that out, hence the post-92 expansion of universities was necessary in order to upskill the workforce”, Dr Ball said.

But regardless of the policy’s roots in the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher era, the conditions are in place for a potential upsurge in existing disaffection with higher education expansion in the modern Tory party – not least in the turn of graduate voters against the party and a sense on the more excitable wing of the party that graduates are somehow being swayed politically by “left-wing bias” among lecturers.

There are issues for universities here, too. Dr Ball said there were “legitimate questions about whether the sector has responsibilities towards parts of the country with little HE presence that might be losing people to higher-skilled urban areas, what those responsibilities might be, and how they might be met”.

Professor Jennings agreed that the civic university agenda “should also ask what forms can universities take that might allow them to engage in communities in towns” and “what forms might level up some of the educational inequalities”.

“Until we start putting place much more [centrally] in our politics, then we’re going to struggle to resolve some of those [problems] and come up with good solutions,” he added.

Indeed, the other side of the “graduates versus non-graduates split” is equally important. Highlighting low voter turnout among young people without degrees, Ms Surridge said: “We can get really caught up in what those with degrees are doing. We still need to remember that more than half are not getting degrees: their politics matter, too.”

If a coherent group of “graduate voters” is being created, then a coherent group of “non-graduate voters” seems to be emerging as well, their concerns shaped by lack of access to education and exclusion from the benefits of economic growth seen in university cities and towns in a deindustrialised knowledge economy. The “graduates versus non-graduates” divide is about a whole lot more than education.


Print headline: Graduate swells shift electoral tide

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