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What Does Political Polarisation Mean for Universities?

  • 8 March 2022
  • By Alex Stewart

Dr Alexander Stewart is Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews. 

Talk of political polarisation has become so commonplace it can seem like a nebulous, catchall term for anything bad or contentious. But for researchers, polarisation is something quite specific. High levels of polarisation mean that there is little or no overlap in the policies of political parties or in the ideological outlook of their members. It also means that the identities of voters become strongly aligned with their political affiliation, and the supporters of a given party express high levels of dislike for the supporters of their political opponents. Each of these interconnected phenomena can be measuredmodelled and, to some extent, predicted. When polarisation sets in, politics becomes contentious and the stage is set for the type of anti-democratic populist movements seen across the world in recent years. 

What does polarisation mean for universities? Whether someone holds a degree is an increasingly important predictor of party affiliation, reflecting growing polarisation along the lines of education. This plays into the so-called crisis of expertise – the perceived or actual loss of public trust in the advice of experts – captured concisely by reactions to Michael Gove’s famous assertion, at the height of the Brexit campaign in 2016, that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’. Since one of the main functions of universities is the production of expertise, any crisis of expertise must be of grave concern to the Higher Education sector.

Fortunately, the British people were not ‘anti-expert’ in 2016, and they are not anti-expert now. The Ipsos MORI Veracity index tracks public trust in experts over time. Doctors (91%), scientists (83%) and professors (81%) enjoy some of the highest levels of public trust, which have persisted, and even grown, over the last few decades. However, these encouraging topline numbers mask a more complex picture lurking beneath. A deeper look at the evidence suggests that while the public may trust experts in general, polarisation can often emerge around expert advice on specific topics.

The most striking example of this comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the US, where Pew Research has consistently found that party identity trumps scientific knowledge in the public’s attitude to climate change. In 2020, Pew found that, among Democratic voters, those who scored high on measures of scientific knowledge were 48% more likely to say that human activity contributes a great deal to climate change. Among Republican voters, those with high scores for scientific knowledge were 8% less likely than those with low levels of scientific knowledge to say the same. Similar dynamics have emerged recently around attitudes to COVID-19 vaccines and, as mentioned above, around trust in the predictions of experts on Brexit.

The question universities must face is whether or not they contribute to polarisation around expertise, and what they can do to reverse it. Although polarisation has many causes, one of the main drivers is inequality. This includes inequality in access to higher education. The 2019 QS Domestic Student Survey found that the financial burden of higher education significantly reduces participation, with 39% of prospective students in the UK saying that the cost makes them less likely to apply to university. Among those who do apply, 17% focus mainly on universities in a location they can commute to from their family home. 

Inequality reshapes participation in higher education, at the same time as it drives political polarisation more generally, leading to a world where having a degree is a strong predictor of who you vote for, and expertise can seem political. This has inevitable consequences for trust in experts, and the seeds of the problem can be seen already. Even though overall trust remains high, a 2020 Ipsos MORI survey carried out for UKRI found trust in scientists to be 12% greater among graduates than non-graduates, and trust among more affluent groups (ABC1s) to be 7% greater than among less affluent groups (C2DEs). 

Experts were central to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, and they will be similarly vital as we work to achieve net zero. Universities can contribute significantly to maintaining trust in experts, especially in the face of persistently high levels of income and wealth inequality, by redoubling efforts to widen access to higher education for lower income students.

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