Theory that university makes people liberal ‘spurious’ – study

UK analysis of data on siblings’ attitudes challenges right-wing claims that universities ‘indoctrinate’ students into leftist thinking

September 14, 2022

A UK study bills itself as offering the most robust evidence to date to challenge the theory that going to university makes people more liberal, and to counter claims on the right that universities are “indoctrinating” students into left-wing thinking.

The paper, published in The British Journal of Sociology, analyses data on siblings to conclude that the link between higher education and political values formation often made by academics and journalists is “largely spurious”.

Elizabeth Simon, author of the paper, a PhD student in the University of Southampton’s department of social statistics and demography, said of her findings: “It’s not uni that’s making us liberal. It’s that liberal people choose to go to university more often.”

This comes after another study by University of Manchester PhD student Ralph Scott, who billed his analysis of British Cohort Study data as offering “the first causal estimate of higher education specifically, finding that achieving a degree reduces authoritarianism and racial prejudice and increases economic right-wing attitudes”.

Ms Simon’s paper concludes that studying at university “only has a modest direct causal effect on British graduates’ attitudes”, with that effect “only liberalising in the case of gender-role attitudes – HE attendees actually develop slightly more conservative economic and environmental adult attitudes, relative to non-attendees”.

Claims from right-leaning commentators that “professors at ‘woke’ HE institutions ‘indoctrinate’ students with ‘leftist agenda[s]’” are grounded in research that reliably shows graduates have more liberal cultural attitudes – taken as “evidence that HE participation causes attitudinal change”, an assertion the new paper aims to challenge.

“The sibling data is really the new contribution,” said Ms Simon of her paper, which uses the household structure of the Harmonised British Household Panel Study and Understanding Society data, from 1994 to 2020. This yielded a “sub-sample of 16,093 sibling clusters representing 38,802 individual respondents”.

By “matching siblings who grew up together and lived in the same household when they were younger” and looking at their attitudes over time, Ms Simon was “able to strip [other factors] out of the university effect, so we were able to get a much more robust estimate of how much it actually is that university shapes our attitudes”.

This showed that “actually university only has a really, really small direct causal effect on the way in which individuals are thinking, or their attitudes”.

On that basis, said Ms Simon, “I think it’s unlikely that just having more people go to university in itself is going to cause any wholesale change in attitudes in Britain”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘University doesn’t make us liberal’: study

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