Academics should encourage their students to read tabloid newspapers and teach them that they are part of a “specific social milieu” of highly educated people, according to the co-author of a new book that argues that mass higher education has helped to open up a huge political and social divide in Western Europe.
Mark Bovens, professor of governance at Utrecht University, and Anchrit Wille, associate professor of governance at Leiden University, write in Diploma Democracy: The Rise of Political Meritocracy that university graduates have come to “dominate all relevant political institutions and arenas”.
After 2016 electoral victories for Donald Trump and the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, a number of commentators argued that levels of education now split voters more than traditional cleavages such as wealth. The chief contribution of this new book, Professor Bovens told Times Higher Education, is to analyse the impact of political dominance by graduates – and how it alienates non-graduate voters.
After the UK’s 2015 general election, nine out of 10 British MPs were graduates. In the German Bundestag after 2013, 86 per cent had attended a higher education institution, and there are similar patterns in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium. This is despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of the electorate in Western Europe is educated to no higher than secondary level, they write.
This matters because “education is not politically neutral, although a lot of academics like to think that it is,” Professor Bovens said.
It means that MPs are “skewed” towards a “cosmopolitan” view on issues such as immigration, multiculturalism and the European Union, he said – the issues over which graduates and non-graduates are most keenly split.
Politicians are “of course” still able to act on behalf of non-graduates, he acknowledged, but because graduates increasingly tend to live in their own social milieu, they “have to make more of an effort” to find out the concerns of other parts of the electorate, he said.
It is also a “symbolic” problem that so many politicians are graduates – just as it would be if they were all white or male – because it signals to non-graduates that “you’re not fit to govern”, he added.
But one key question is whether university education makes people more cosmopolitan – or whether cosmopolitan individuals are simply more likely to go to university. Professor Bovens acknowledged that the “jury is still out” on this question, but argued that it was likely to be a mixture of the two.
“University prepares you with the intellectual equipment to deal with the complexity of immigration and globalisation”, for example, by spending time abroad and studying other cultures, he said.
But, he added, “it's not just a matter of [graduates] understanding diversity better. It's also a matter of different [economic] interests.”
One example was freedom of movement within the EU, which expanded the job opportunities of the highly educated, he argued, but exposed others to competition from cheaper foreign workers. To redress this, the EU could offer its Erasmus+ student mobility programme to vocational students as it does to university students.
To try to address the problem, Professor Bovens said that he tells his political science and public administration students – who will likely end up as future policymakers – to also read tabloid newspapers, and above all to remember that “you’re not a good professional if you don’t realise that you live in a specific social environment”.