The vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has warned that the “educational divide” exposed by the Brexit vote could undermine democracy, while England’s former universities minister suggested higher education has “some responsibility” for anti-evidence sentiment.
Louise Richardson gave the Campaign for Social Science’s annual Sage Publishing lecture on “Educational Inequality in a Populist Era” in London on 22 November, with Lord Willetts speaking in response.
Professor Richardson highlighted the voting patterns evident in the UK’s European Union referendum and the US presidential election.
“The single biggest predictor of a vote for Brexit and a vote for Donald Trump was not income, was not age, was not race – it was educational attainment,” said Professor Richardson, a political scientist by training, who specialised in the study of terrorism.
“In the UK, one-quarter of university graduates voted to leave the EU, whereas three-quarters of those with no post-secondary qualifications voted to leave. Similarly, 75 per cent of white people with no college degree voted for Donald Trump.”
She added: “This educational divide could have portentous ramifications. It has the potential to undermine the bonds that hold representative democracy together.”
These bonds “assume certain shared values, like respect for knowledge”, Professor Richardson continued. But “if knowledge is perceived simply as a perk of the plutocracy, the underlying consensus, the basis of truth on which decisions are made, could be eroded”, she said.
In response, universities “must be, and be seen to be, fair in our admissions procedures and transparent in our governance,” said Professor Richardson. “We must do what we can to address the deep educational inequalities in our society.”
Regarding the social sciences, she added: “The scale of the educational inequalities in this country is an issue of such import that we should be concentrating all the methods of our discipline in attempting an understanding of the scale of the problem, the causes of the problem and identifying evidence-based policies that might serve to mitigate the problem.”
In his response, Lord Willetts said that there were “two awkward arguments for universities to confront” in the context of populism.
He referred to “[Jacques] Derrida or [Jean-François] Lyotard or the postmodernists” and the argument that “nobody could just be regarded as speaking up for truth – you had to identify their social background…[which] would explain what they were saying”.
Lord Willetts added: “These were doctrines that many of which were first promulgated by people in universities. It’s just possible, therefore, that some of this anti-intellectualism itself has intellectual origins. Louise’s confident, classical assertion, using words like ‘truth’, ‘evidence’, ‘fact’ – there will be lots of people in departments of Western universities, in the UK, US and elsewhere, who would say ‘the world isn’t like that’.
“So higher education itself has some responsibility for these trends.”
He also suggested that the UK’s research excellence framework, which all researchers are expected to be submitted to in future, and the drive for prestige in publishing, were “further driving the deracination of universities”.
“The challenge is, of course, we want high-quality, globally successful research,” he said. “But there is, alongside that, a civic and local role for a university – and we have to make sure the incentive system does not penalise that role.”