Professor: give non-graduates ‘dignity’ to heal societal divide

Populism scholar Matthew Goodwin discusses political side-effects of higher education expansion and academic debate about ‘grievances’ fuelling movements

July 2, 2019
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The gulf between graduates and non-graduates “is probably the most important divide within our electoral politics” across the West, and resolving it will involve giving more “dignity and recognition” to non-graduates, according to a prominent researcher on populism.

Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, spoke to Times Higher Education prior to giving the Academy of Social Sciences’ annual lecture, on Brexit and populism.

Professor Goodwin, co-author of National Populism: The Revolt against Liberal Democracy, explored in his lecture how the rise of populism in the UK has driven shifts in support for the established parties – with the educational divide a key factor.

“The educational divide now is probably the most important divide within our electoral politics,” he told THE. “After Trump and Brexit, we’ve had a vigorous international debate about [the key factor in support for populism]: is it income, is it poverty, is it the Rust Belt, is it a ‘whitelash’?”

But studies showed a “pretty consistent story” that support for “national populist parties and movements” and for Brexit was “stronger among people without degrees”, said Professor Goodwin.

National Populism argues that “the expansion of higher education potentially has a negative corollary”, with “another form of left-behind…created among the rest” who do not go on to university.

Professor Goodwin said: “Can we…begin to have a discussion about a new social settlement that gives as much esteem and dignity and recognition to non-graduates as it does to graduates? Can we invest more heavily in apprenticeships and technical education while also investing heavily in university programmes?”

In the UK, the Conservatives’ sudden interest in further education – manifested in the Augar review – is driven by its new electoral strategy of appealing to working-class Leave voters, some suggest.

Professor Goodwin added: “If you look at the Conservative Party, it’s now far more dependent on non-degree holders; [whereas] Labour’s gains [have been] among degree holders – we’ve never really seen Labour having these numbers that they have now among university graduates and [in] university towns. So British politics, too, is gradually being polarised along this educational dimension.”

More broadly, he said: “If we don’t actually begin to resolve this educational divide, the bottom line is none of this stuff [political polarisation] is going to go away. Across Europe, we can see political systems being restructured around the educational divide.”

While social scientists studying Brexit and Donald Trump’s election win have often highlighted the electoral significance of the divide between graduates and non-graduates, there has been relatively little research on why this divide has political resonance. What is it about the experience of going to university, and not going to university, that shapes people’s social or political perspectives?

“That’s exactly where the research now has to be for the next five years,” said Professor Goodwin, with “still a lot of work in social science to be done” on the educational divide.

But he suggested that existing research “shows the powerful socialisation effect that university has; that it is about socialising and mingling with people who tend to hold more liberal outlooks. We know that self-selection is probably at work: that people from more secure, affluent…backgrounds tend to self-select into higher education.”

A review of National Populism in The Guardian describes the book as being “unstinting in its generosity to right-wing populist leaders, and unfailingly compassionate to their supporters”.

Professor Goodwin said “there’s a debate within academia about what is driving public support for populism”, which includes questions about whether the “grievances” driving that support are “legitimate or not”.

He added: “In particular in its earlier years, the [academic] literature was very quick to buy into the idea that all of this political churn and change is essentially about fascism and extremism and racism – and ignored or overlooked the possibility that there might be some legitimate grievances among supporters of these movements.”

Professor Goodwin argued that in addressing questions “about what can we do about societal discord, what can we do about polarisation, what can we do about fragmentation and populism, it strikes me as pretty obvious that we need to objectively look at what these grievances are and how we might think about responding to them and replying to them”.

He continued: “I feel like after 30 years of social science [research on populism], we’ve got a pretty good handle on the fact that, for example, people who hold racist beliefs tend to vote for national populist parties, but not everybody who votes for national populist parties holds those beliefs.”


Print headline: Degree gap, division and the way ahead

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