Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Seven lessons from the UPP Foundation and HEPI polling on public attitudes to higher education

  • 28 July 2021
  • By Richard Brabner & Nick Hillman

This blog was written by Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, and Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI. You can find Richard on Twitter @richardbrabner. 

Last week, the UPP Foundation and HEPI published a major new report on public attitudes to higher education. The survey was conducted in February and asked over 2,000 adults in England about universities as institutions, the value of degrees and campus culture.

a key lesson from the survey is to tailor messages on contentious cultural issues which widen support for action, rather than use slogans which are little understood

Much of the press coverage focussed on the fascinating finding that public support for changes to the curriculum depends on how they are framed and presented. We believe that a key lesson from the survey is to tailor messages on contentious cultural issues which widen support for action, rather than use slogans which are little understood. Not everyone agrees with this of course. Jo Grady, General Secretary of UCU said that decolonisation ‘should not have to be sanitised in order to win support.’ But we feel that this is an important debate for the sector to have and were pleased with the response from Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain, who agreed that ‘talk about widening curriculums is much more constructive.’

However, the survey touched on many other issues in higher education and there a number of findings that remain a little under the radar. So we wanted to share seven other key points which emerged from the polling.

1. High levels of neutrality towards universities

One of the most significant conclusions from the survey is the high levels of neutrality that exists towards universities. The good news is that four times as many people (43%) regard universities’ impact as positive than those who see it is as negative (11%), but almost half (46%) feel neutral about universities.

a majority of the public (54%), including a majority of graduates (53%) and a majority of non-graduates (55%) believe that society values a university education too highly

Overall, we find that those who are highly engaged with – and opinionated on – university degrees and graduates make up a small minority of the population (around 18%). Meanwhile the segmentation analysis reveals a large minority (about three-in-ten) who are disinterested in our sector. Perhaps the most challenging finding is that a majority of the public (54%), including a majority of graduates (53%) and a majority of non-graduates (55%) believe that society values a university education too highly.

As we say in the Foreword to the report, whether we like it or not, universities compete for support and resources with other parts of government. If the public do not value universities, the pressure on the Government will be to provide greater support elsewhere. That’s why finding out what the public think, so we can work out ways to persuade them of our sector’s value, is so important. As these results show, there is work to do.

2. Support for higher education is split between class, age and vote

One of the reasons we commissioned the survey was to mirror polling from the United States, which found that Democrats were 34% more positive about universities than Republicans, with as many as 59% of Republicans having a negative view of universities. Our polling finds some similarities. Leave voters are 18% less positive towards universities than Remainers (Leave 35% positive, Remain 53% positive), and there is also a smaller (but noticeable) 8% gap between Conservative voters (41% positive) and Labour voters (49% positive).

However, unlike in the US, while Conservative voters (15%) and Leave voters (16%) are around twice as likely to express negative views about universities than Labour voters (7%) and Remain voters (7%), the underlying feeling towards universities is one of neutrality amongst Conservative (44%) and Leave (50%) voters rather than negativity.

Opinion on universities is also split on class and age, with older and more working-class people being a little more sceptical about the value of our sector.

those who are more negative about universities tend to have had less contact with them

These trends can be seen across the survey, but one striking finding is that a majority (57%) in the wealthier AB socio-economic group believe universities have played an important or essential role in the response to the pandemic, but this decreases to 37% amongst the less advantaged DE socio-economic group. This raises the question why the incredible work universities have done this year – from vaccines to supporting the NHS to the many community initiatives staff and students have been involved in – have connected with the most privileged in society, but not (at least to the same extent) with others.  

3. Importance of engagement

One reason which may partly explain the partisan, age and class splits is that those who are more negative about universities tend to have had less contact with them. We find that around one-third of people (34%) have never visited a university, including a majority (53%) of those from more disadvantaged (DE) socio-economic groups (a point picked up by BBC education correspondent, Sean Coughlan). A further 32% of people have not visited a university in the past five years.

In other words, in the five years leading up to the pandemic, 66% of the public had not set foot in a university, which rises to 77% of those from DE social class background.

We also find that people from the more privileged AB social groupings – who themselves did not attend university for study – are more likely to have visited one. Two-thirds (65%) of those in the DE socio-economic group who have never studied at a university have also never visited one. Compare this to 51% in both C1 and C2 socio-economic groups, and 37% in the wealthier AB socio-economic group.

These findings suggest that our sector needs to get better at engaging the public overall and should actively find ways to inspire those from more working-class backgrounds onto our campuses.

4. When people are thinking about themselves or their families, they are more positive about degrees

While more people say they want the proportion of people going to university to fall (27%) than increase (17%), when we ask if people themselves would want to go to university if they were leaving secondary school now, 46% think they would want to, and only 26% that they would not. We also find that the majority of people want their children to go to university, including 65% of parents with children under 10, and 70% of parents with children 11-15.

If the Government and policymakers believe cutting places will be popular, our polling suggests they could be in for a rude awakening

Our survey – like others before it – find that people are much more positive about participation when they are thinking about the lives of their loved ones, rather than in an abstract sense. If the Government and policymakers believe cutting places will be popular, our polling suggests they could be in for a rude awakening.

5. But the public are inconsistent about the purpose of degrees

When we asked the public whether studying topics which do not clearly link to a profession is a waste of time, 54% agreed (16% strongly, 16% moderately, 22% a little), and only 24% disagreed (7% strongly, 6% moderately, 11% a little).  On top of that, the most popular reason graduates go to university is to ‘help me get on the career ladder or follow a chosen career.’ At the same time, we find some evidence for a perceived value of university degrees which goes beyond careers. People agree (61%) that enjoying a subject is a good enough reason to do a degree in it.

This could be described as the public’s version of ‘cakeism’ when it comes to universities. They want to study what they enjoy, but whatever they enjoy studying should also lead directly to a career. Given the costs of going to university for graduates and taxpayers, this is understandable.

6. The public like research and are patriotic

When we asked the public what universities are seen as important for, innovation/research (78%) came out top, with jobs (65%) and local economies (61%) also featuring highly. We also find that most (84%) people are proud that one of the main COVID vaccines was developed within a British university and 68% say it is important to them that British universities do well in global league tables.

The survey also asked respondents to choose between areas which they believe it would be most important for universities to add benefits to. Half (51%) selected the UK as a whole, with 14% choosing local communities and 16% choosing the world. The civic and international roles universities play are vital, but this is a timely reminder that national identities are deeply rooted and we shouldn’t forget to demonstrate our value to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britain when we communicate our sector’s impact.

7. Don’t forget the segments

Finally, we just want to remind readers that our pollsters for this project, Public First, provided a segmentation analysis of the population. This is fascinating because it goes beyond the traditional cross-breaks to get underneath the data. It shows there are six distinct opinion groups in the country and a large minority (as previously described) which are disengaged.

The table below shows who is roughly in each group, and descriptions of them can be found on pages 13-20 of the report.

How far should the sector go to tailor its engagement to each group, and to what extent we can win over some of the negative or pessimistic groups, are questions the sector may want to consider in the months ahead.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.