An educated vote?

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

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6 Comments on “An educated vote?”


  1. The elephant in the room is the purpose of university education. Go back a very few generations, or if you prefer centuries, and the purpose was clear: training for specialised occupations such as the law, the church, medicine, and later science, engineering, and then business, under which was grafted the education of an elite, originally chosen by birth and l, ater, at least in theory, by ability, for their contribution to culture.

    Why do we send half the school leaving population to university? I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but it would clarify discussion of issues such as this if we had a clear idea of what we want as a result of this highly expensive practice. And the fact that people are willing to be students even now when they bear much more of the expense themselves, is no answer, since they may well feel compelled, like trees in the Amazon, to reach the highest level they can because what counts for competitive jobseeking is not absolute but relative level of qualifications.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    “We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight…”

    Yes, we may believe that, the sort of belief that makes it all worthwhile, the long hours, the late emails, the week-ends spent marking, and yet it is worth reminding ourselves that education sometimes fails, that we fail as educators, or that specific personal and cultural factors exert a deleterious influence on the development of a young mind…A couple of years ago The Guardian run a story on students voting UKIP (incidentally all males https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/09/meet-the-students-voting-ukip) some of their reasons for joining the party reflect an aspiration towards *democracy*.
    Also, worth remembering is the fact that history is full of examples of highly educated individuals who have not necessarily been champions of democratic values.
    This is not the place to venture into an examination of democracy, especially in its latest manifestations, I would only argue that the point is not “to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically,” such opportunities should be available, potentially, for every citizen of the ‘polis’, rather we need to overcome the dichotomy between expert skills and intellectual values which traditionally characterises much of the discourse around HE. Skills and intellect can coexist, critical citizens can be successful entrepreneurs. The need for universities to train a suitable work force should not affect the potential for wider access to understandings of a genuine higher learning. It is about time that we address such anachronistic tensions if universities are to perform as key agencies in developing a more egalitarian, participatory and socially just society.

  3. Vince Says:

    I feel you are looking at it backwards. The environment being created that uni grads are expected to compete means that an entire cohort is by definition excluded. Ever the traditional trades are moved to a classroom before being let out in some sort of latterday slave trade to master craftsmen, which usually means some builder. Or we have the situation like with nursing, where when they were trained in the hospitals could protect the grades below them, but now as uni grads are separated.
    At the moment no attempt is being made to protect the poorer sections, be they employed or otherwise from the game playing of financier’s. In fact, near as I can tell they are about to be put through another meal grinder on a global scale.
    Can you answer me why wealthy countries can’t provide a minimum level of decent livelihood. The they can get health care, that they aren’t incinerated in tower blocks prettified with what amounted to torch paper, because the upper middleclass disliked the view of a brutalist building. And there are so many many more nasty belittling policies.
    OK, why Brexit. Because the London government refused to keep infrastructure at a level in places like Boston Lincs.

  4. James Fryar Says:

    To be honest, I think the analysis is one step removed from the underlying reality.

    Large sections of the English (in particular) population voted for Brexit because they believe immigration is a problem. In certain communities they saw large numbers of immigrants working in low paid jobs. They saw these as ‘their’ jobs. They saw a situation where it was difficult to find places to rent, difficult to buy houses, difficult to find places in schools. And they blamed immigration from the EU for these problems.

    In contrast to these ‘working class’ communities, you have a predominantly ‘middle class’ college-educated community. They’re going to see the situation in a different light. They’re the ones working in the financial services sector, and the tech multinationals. They’re the ones swanning off for wine tasting in the south of France, thinking of retiring in a quaint Spanish villa, and so on.

    Ok, maybe that’s a bit over the top. But the point I’m making is that the fact that more graduates voted against Brexit is hardly surprising given the different job profiles and opportunities that section of society enjoys. In other words, it’s not a question of how much people know or how politically savvy they are as a result of the education system, but a question of how their opportunities and circumstances changed as a result of going through that system.

    A university professor is going to have a very different view of Brexit than the assembly-line operator with unemployed friends who is now working alongside 15 Polish immigrants. That view has nothing to do with their relative education and everything to do personal circumstances. So yes, graduates voted against Brexit. But not because they were better educated in matters of politics, had better judgement, or better insights!


    • An interesting analysis, but I’m not sure the evidence supports it. Research has shown that immigrant workers haven’t displaced local ones, and in any case unemployment is low. People may think that Polish migrants are doing work that belong to ‘their tribe’, but they don’t actually want to do that work or have those jobs themselves, they just want to see English people doing them. We have slipped to a position where subliminal racism or xenophobia is being allowed back in, provided it is expressed through euphemisms. People feel threatened because some media outlets and some politicians are persuading them that they should feel that way.

      Dangerous times.

      • James Fryar Says:

        I agree entirely. We all saw the ‘anti-immigration’ platform being used by UKIP … a one-trick pony that, since Brexit, has imploded but that strategy was successful in stirring up the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. False perception, rather than fact, was the winner in Brexit.

        The really worrying thing is that we’re now at a point where sections of society are happy to use an argument that goes ‘if you tell me something I don’t like, then I can dismiss it by simply arguing that you’re lying to me’. Climate change is a great example … I don’t accept global warming because the scientists are lying and fudging the data. Similarly, we have people essentially saying I don’t accept your view of immigration is correct because I believe you are lying to me.

        This form of argument has become all too common … and it scares me that that form of logic is seen as rational. It’s exactly the same logic that led to us burning witches at the stake (I believe you are a witch, and if you say otherwise, I’ll assume you’re lying).


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