‘Little evidence’ for claim universities are ‘left-wing bastions’

Study of European Social Survey data finds academics more left-leaning than almost any other professional group, but show ‘no greater homogeneity’ in beliefs

December 30, 2019
Source: Getty
Inclination ‘professors are more left-leaning than all other professional groups except one (artists), on three of the four indicators’, found the study

A paper looking at the political attitudes of university lecturers across Europe finds “little evidence for the claim that universities are left-wing bastions where there is no room for diversity of political orientation”.

The paper, based on data from the European Social Survey (ESS), says that while university lecturers are “more left-leaning than all other professional groups”, except artists, there is “no greater homogeneity” of political beliefs among them than in other professions.

The study, written by Herman van de Werfhorst, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, was published in the British Journal of Sociology.

It aims to counter the fact that “we know little about the political orientation of professors in comparison to other professionals, which would be the right comparison group if we want to know whether universities are potentially hostile environments to conservatives”.

The notion that universities are “left-wing bastions” intolerant towards conservative attitudes has long been advanced by sections of the US right, and has become increasingly prevalent more recently in nations including the UK and the Netherlands.

Professor van de Werfhorst suggests in the paper that if this thesis were correct “we would not only expect that professors are more left-leaning than other professionals (with similar levels and fields of education), but also that there is a comparatively small dispersion around that more left-wing average orientation, leaving little room for diversity”.

His study used data from the ESS that “measures the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns of diverse populations” across 31 nations – including political attitudes – and also records participants’ occupational roles.

Across the 31 nations, higher education teaching professionals accounted for an average 0.53 per cent of survey respondents, the paper found.

The research looked at answers to the ESS questions on “general left-right self-placement”, “opinion on the role of government in economic redistribution”, “tolerance to immigration” and “support for further European integration”.

Based on this, the study finds that “professors are more left-leaning than all other professional groups except one (artists), on three of the four indicators (except further European integration, where, besides artists, also the architects and planners have similar attitudes as professors). The differences are quite sizeable, often between 0.2 and 0.3 standard deviations.”

But on whether academics are more politically homogeneous in their variation from the average than other professions, the paper says: “With regard to the variance around the predicted occupational group mean, the evidence for the left-wing bastion hypothesis is mixed; the variance is (somewhat) lower among professors than among other professionals on right-left self-identification, and attitudes towards immigration, but the difference is not significant.

“With regard to income redistribution and further European integration there is no greater homogeneity among professors than among other professionals.”

Consequently, it says: “When we examine the residual variance, there is little indication that professors have an exceptionally low level of dispersion. There is little evidence for the claim that universities are left-wing bastions where there is no room for diversity of political orientation.”

The study suggests that the “exceptional position of immigration attitudes” among academics “may speculatively be explained by the highly international character of academia”.

The paper’s overall conclusion is that while it is “demonstrated that professors are more liberal and left-leaning than other professionals”, there is “no greater homogeneity of political orientations among the professoriate relative to other specific professions, suggesting that there is a diversity of opinions which is similar to what professionals would find in other occupations”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

"Some evidence" would be a more accurate headline than "Little evidence", as there is evidence for left-leaning bias, but not for homogeneity. Homogeneity of opinion could be disproved by even a small minority of dissenters from the mainstream view. Also, the main complaint concerns the humanities, so it is unfortunate that these are not separately analysed in the study - presumably because the source data is too aggregated.
Why is the comparison group other professionals, rather than the general population? I suspect that professionals are more left leaning than the total population, so what the paper actually finds is that academics are even more left leaning than the rest of the population. Hardly disproves the idea they are left wing bastions.

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