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Despite appearances, higher education is front and centre of this election campaign

  • 1 July 2024
  • By Lucy Haire
  • This HEPI blog was authored by Lucy Haire, Director of Partnerships at HEPI.

Higher education isn’t a doorstep issue,’ say experts about the 2024 UK General Election. The main concerns for most people are the cost of living, the NHS, housing and immigration. If education is a consideration at all, it is schools that are seen as the priority, with preschools and childcare also in the mix. When public money is tight, higher education is near the back of the queue.

Therefore, there are unlikely to be many significant announcements about higher education during the campaigning period. The party manifestos included few surprises, with neither major party offering solutions to the funding issues faced by the sector.

But there is another way of looking at the election where higher education is completely centre stage. As the European Parliamentary election results came in over the second weekend in June, it became very apparent that there has been a surge in support for populist political parties across Europe, many of which appeal to, and are often run by, people who have not participated in higher education. Self-made politicians who have battled their way to the top against the odds like Italy’s Prime Minister and leader of the Brothers of Italy Party, Giorgia Meloni, and those who are proud to represent citizens without university degrees, are in the ascendancy. France’s President Macron has even called a snap election in light of the triumphs of the National Rally Party led by populists Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is university-educated and Bardella did a short spell at the Sorbonne. Their party does attract some wealthier graduates, but it also has swaths of support from those who are not university-educated. 

Back in the UK, there is a distinct lack of forthright and positive talk about higher education from any of the political parties. The only headlines about the sector have populist appeal and a negative thrust: ‘Cut mickey mouse degrees and instead have more apprenticeships’ and ‘Slash the number of immigrants who come to the UK as students’ are the sorts of things that cut through. Sections of the media that are sympathetic towards higher education focus on the problems in the sector such as lack of funds and unequal access. There is little bold oratory about the value of education, higher or otherwise.  

Of course, the higher education sector is trying very hard to be heard, and at HEPI we have provided evidence and research for all the political parties to consider, for example about the economic value of international students to the UK economy, even dividing that eye-watering annual sum of £42 billion up as a figure for each parliamentary constituency. We have also published a great deal on the higher education funding crisis as it affects universities trying to run courses and research, and as it impacts students trying to pay their way. We began to investigate, among other things, links between public perceptions of higher education and voting patterns in collaboration with the UPP Foundation and Public First in 2022 and again in 2023.

The university mission and membership groups as well as the research funders and individual universities are all doing their utmost to improve public understanding of the value of the sector as we go to the polls. But, just at the moment, the airwaves are largely full of some individual gaffes and lots of populism. The return of the politician who has arguably done the most to shape UK politics in the first quarter of the 21st century, Nigel Farage, as leader of the Reform Party and parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Clacton, is another example of a successful individual running a populist party who did not attend university.

David Goodhart’s divisive book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, had elements of the thesis that the more educated form one semi-cohesive group and the less educated another. Since Goodhart wrote that book in 2017, the percentage of those participating in higher education has grown. The rhetoric from, and on behalf of, those who have not has become shriller.

As Professor Robert Ford and his co-authors wrote in November 2023, the level of education has become a key fault line in politics. Before Brexit, graduates were more likely to vote Conservative while school leavers Labour. But this has now switched. In particular, education is now the strongest predictor of voters’ social values, with graduates holding more liberal views and school leavers having more authoritarian attitudes.

A significant fault line in the 2024 UK General Election, like the EU election, like Macron’s snap vote and the probably next US presidential election, with exceptions, caveats, subgroups and complexities of course, is rapidly becoming the university-educated/ aspiring-university-educated alliance versus the not-university educated and never-want-to-be university educated groups. The reality is that higher education is completely dominating this election.

Read the main political parties’ manifesto commitments about higher education in our live blog here.

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  1. Excellent article – but, if I may say so, it ducks the central question.

    Given that higher education has become the major fault-line in modern societies across the world, we have what I have referred to in my new book (‘Realizing the Ecological University: Eight Ecosystems, their Antagonisms and a Manifesto’, Sept, 24) as ‘the 50:50 problem’.

    This separation of society (into those who have/ who have not experienced higher education) is a problem not just for the wider society but for higher education itself.

    I have yet to see – in the UK – a VC acknowledging this matter as a matter for higher education. Unless/until those who have not experienced higher education – or will not do so – see value IN higher education, so mistrust, critique and even hostility will be heaped on higher education and a slow withdrawal of resources.

    Even more importantly, society will continue to fragment, and the seeds of (right-leaning) populism will grow. As such, the universities will be contributing to instability in society and a societal inwardness, at the very time that the global problems are calling for more integrated societies and a collective wisdom.

    In short, the universities have major responsibilities on their hands here. What are they doing – what might they do – to address this most serious and most pressing 50/50 problem, a problem that is society and global?

  2. John Leslie Brennan says:

    There is quite a literature about universities being ‘troublesome institutions’? But my question would be “Are universities still troublesome institutions?”
    Maybe a few? Key questions. A new project?

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