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The Education Effect

Imgage: michael_swan [CC BY-ND 2.0] via Flickr

University staff not students may hold the key to Number 10, says Paula Surridge

Universities have often been turbulent places to work and study in recent years, which looks unlikely to change any time soon. The decision by the University and College Union to call eight consecutive days of strike action during the election campaign will ensure the run-up to polling day keeps universities in the news.

While the effects on voting behaviour are unpredictable, the UCU action in February 2018 produced an increased sense of solidarity among academic staff, and if this sense is fostered again in 2019 there may well be a strong block of academic voters up for grabs. Will this matter?

When political commentators talk about university towns and cities, they almost always mean the student vote. Before the election was even called, the parties wrangled over which date was best for students to be able to cast their votes.

Yet evidence of the student vote’s importance is weak. Pollster YouGov has estimated that seven in ten of those students who voted in 2017 did so in their home constituency, not their term-time one.


Patterns of support in these constituencies have become distinct, with areas surrounding universities among the most remain-leaning parts of England in the 2016 referendum and returning surprise results in 2017—most notably in Canterbury. But there is little evidence that this is a result of the so-called student vote (most students were not in their term-time constituencies at the time of the EU referendum).

What may be more significant is another feature of university constituencies, which is that they often have higher-than-average proportions of the electorate who hold a degree or higher qualification, driven by university staff and those employed in related industries that cluster nearby.

Patterns of constituency support in the 2010 general election show that Liberal Democrat support was correlated with educational levels, the proportion of people employed in education, and the proportion employed in professional, scientific and research industries.

Three-way tie

In 2010 the Liberal Democrats was the first choice for those with degree or higher qualification, winning over one in three voters in this group. But Labour and the Conservatives were only just behind. The subsequent collapse of the Liberal Democrats after the coalition government saw the Labour Party reach first place with this group of voters in 2015 and further reinforce this position in 2017, attracting 45 per cent of voters with degrees.

Whether someone voted to remain or leave the European Union is also closely related to the highest level of qualification they hold. Among those with degrees, around seven in 10 voted to remain, while the same proportion of those with GCSEs or lower qualifications voted to leave.

It would be wrong to attribute this educational effect only to Brexit; as the figures above show, the pattern was evident in 2010 when the EU was not a significant issue in the election campaign. Rather, it stems from the fragmentation of political values.

We are used to thinking about politics in Britain as structured around a left/right divide over economic issues, including public ownership, redistribution of wealth and the relative power of trade unions and big business. But over the past two decades non-economic issues have increasingly come to the fore. This has led to a second dimension in our politics, running from social liberalism through to social conservatism about subjects such as criminal justice and censorship.

Old economic values

While the old economic values are most closely related to income or economic class position, new social values are most closely related to education levels. These value dimensions structure our post-Brexit politics, mean there are socially liberal voters and socially conservative voters on both the economic left and right.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat vote has become more concentrated in post-Brexit politics because some people who voted for the party in 2010 were doing so as a protest against major parties, rather than as an expression of distinctly liberal values.

Where the new dimension has become reflective of Brexit identities, we will also see education becoming more correlated with voting. This is supported by recent polling. Not all polls include a breakdown by education level, but in those that do (notably Ipsos Mori, Opinium and on an ad-hoc basis YouGov) the figures suggest Labour and the Liberal Democrats are level among those with a degree or higher-level qualifications. Where figures are available that further disaggregate those with postgraduate qualifications, the Liberal Democrats are notably ahead of Labour.

There has been much focus on the impact of the youth vote for Labour in 2017, and much less focus on the impact of the movement of those with higher qualifications from the Liberal Democrats to Labour between 2010 and 2017. The outcome of the 2019 election may well depend on how many of those voters move back. Such is the power of the education effect, if the Liberal Democrats continue to poll at close to their 2010 levels, the best way of working out whether they have a chance in a local constituency will be to find out the proportion of voters with a degree.

Paula Surridge is senior lecturer in the school of sociology, politics and international studies at the University of Bristol.