In the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom last June, and the United States presidential election in November, two elements were especially powerful shapers of choice: whether voters had entered higher education or not, and whether voters lived in large cities or not. Note that location and education are connected. Higher education institutions are concentrated in cities.
As is argued more fully in my book Higher Education and the Common Good, in neoliberal nations (though not in all nations) the growth of participation in higher education has sadly become associated with new potentials for social division. This is now showing in politics.
Research by Kirby Swales of NatCen Social Research in London, jointly with the 'UK in a Changing Europe' project, finds that Brexit was supported by 26% of those with a degree but 78% of those without educational qualifications.
In the US Nate Silver finds that in 48 of the 50 US counties with the highest proportion of college-educated voters, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton increased Barack Obama’s 2012 vote by an average of 9%. These counties were diverse by state, income and ethnic composition. Many had high proportions of white voters.
Correspondingly, in 47 of the 50 least educated counties in the US, Clinton’s vote collapsed compared to Obama’s in 2012, with an average slide of 11%.
Education and location mattered more than income and class. Support for alt-right populism seemed to cut across class and income lines, though in different ways in each country.
In the UK, 'Remain' voters had higher average incomes, but there was much middle class support for 'Leave' outside the cities. In the US, white males were Donald Trump’s main support base and the average income of his voters was higher than that of Hillary Clinton voters. The only category of white voters who gave majority support to Clinton were college-educated women.
Culture not class
The two electorates were polarised by culture not class – between higher education-associated folk in the cities, more comfortable with migration and global connectedness; and less educated rural and small town folk, uneasy with globalisation and open to the appeal of blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism. In the Rust Belt states Trump won not in the cities where declining manufacturing is found but in the rural districts beyond those cities.
In both campaigns the negative referencing and de-authorisation of higher education were unmistakeable. In the UK, Vote Leave campaign leader Michael Gove declared that people no longer wanted ’experts’ telling them what to think. In the US, where 30% have a bachelor degree, Trump celebrated the ‘uneducated’ and savaged climate science.
The growth of mass higher education has enabled the divide between degree holders and others to be mobilised as a political factor. When only 10% of people enter higher education, it is impossible to use this polarisation to secure political advantage. When participation reaches a third of people or more it is another matter.
In the UK and US the lifetime rate of degree enrolment is well above this. Across the world total participation in tertiary education included 208 million people in 2014, one third of each age cohort.
Politicians have long sold educational opportunity as an enticement to voters. In 2016 the equation was flipped and those outside higher education could dignify themselves by pushing back, not against lack of opportunity but against the very system of value that in defining education as an opportunity, and placing it nominally within reach, made them feel like failures.
The great growth in participation means that the disadvantages of those without degrees are acute, with stable full-time jobs for non-graduates in decline. But the path to degree completion is fraught. For many older voters higher education is a game they cannot win or even play, an elite sector (unnaturally cosmopolitan and threatening) that has closed them out twice, once in education and once in the labour markets.
Private vs public good
In Higher Education as a Common Good I explore the predicament of Anglo-American higher education: more accessible than ever at the bottom yet strangely positioned as an anti-popular force. The key to this paradox is that the role of higher education in producing state-led non-market public goods has slipped – especially the goods that augment social inclusion and solidarity on the basis of equality and human rights, common goods.
Higher education forms more literate, communicative and technologically competent societies. It generates a more productive workforce. It is a main employer and modernising force in cities and regions. Its research has many applications in governmental, industrial and global problems. Above all, higher education brings people, societies and nations together.
Inclusion, cooperation and equal respect are the building blocks of sociability.
But for Anglo-Americans, especially outside higher education, the sector is more about competition than solidarity – and without solidarity, public goods are merely someone else’s abstraction.
Clearly, many UK voters in rural districts and small towns did not buy the abstract rhetoric of the higher education organisations, which campaigned for European Union membership on the basis that higher education is working for everybody. Brexit saw strong votes for Leave in the hinterland around university cities in the Midlands and North.
It should not be surprising. For the last generation the overwhelming message in the US and UK has not been about public goods, it has been about private goods. Policy-makers, economists and the media – not to mention many higher education leaders and marketing departments – have pushed the message that higher education is there to generate private benefits.
Higher education is treated as a kind of 'iUniversity' for the student-consumer, a private investment in the student’s own human capital that can be cashed in later in superior employment rates (‘employability’) and superior salaries. Yes, all agree higher education is somewhere, somehow about the public good, but the public good is never clearly defined.
University rankings. Intense competition between institutions, and between families for entry into the leading universities. Rising tuition fees. All carry the same message. Life is a frenzied contest moving faster and faster, and so is higher education. Its value is stratified, ranked in financial terms and concentrated at the top. This has decisively positioned the sector as an elite playground for the top 1%.
In the US and the UK, upper middle class families that invest in education as a private good, via high fee secondary schools or private coaching, increasingly dominate the best university opportunities. Meanwhile, as the system expands, other degrees no longer create automatic entry into professional jobs. The returns to graduates are more dispersed, by institution attended and field of study.
This threatens to undermine the democratising role of expanding higher education systems. Higher education closes off the fruits of society from those who do not enter, but at the same time no longer guarantees the benefits it once did for many who are inside.
In addition, the growth of inclusion in higher education has coincided with increasing inequalities in income and wealth. This is not primarily driven by education. Tax policy and wage determination are more important. Yet in the US and UK, especially, higher education reflects and reinforces the larger trend to inequality, giving it a meritocratic gloss.
Here the extent of stratification, the degree of inequality between universities in the value of their degrees, is fundamental to the social impact of the sector. Steep stratification narrows the number of student places that carry real social status and provide high value for graduates (places increasingly subject to elite capture), while it tends to empty out value in mass higher education institutions.
Though the equality debate is mainly about fees, vertical stratification is more potent than fees in shaping inequality in higher education.
In all societies, positional competition between families for advantage is inevitable. But this competition can be rendered more or less intense, and the principle of the common good can be brought into play. Family background will always provide advantages and disadvantages in education, but when the passages for upward mobility are widened then education can make a difference for large numbers of non-privileged students.
In other words, government can counter-frame social competition in education to enhance equality and social solidarity through the manner that the system and its financing are configured. Nordic and German-speaking country systems, in which vertical differentials between institutions are more modest than in the US and UK and all university degrees confer substantial value, serve the 1% less well and the common good better.
For the common good
In short, Higher Education and the Common Good focuses on public and common goods in national higher education systems as one solution to growing inequality and socio-political division. Along the way it critiques the economic orthodoxies that have hidden the common good from view – individualistic readings of human capital theory, winner/loser market competition and university rankings that have further stratified the sector.
In the longer run there is reason to be optimistic. Brexit and the US election confirm that people prepared in higher education have greater personal agency in the face of economic, social and technological change and are more tolerant of mobility and multiple cultures that are inevitable in a turning, converging world.
In the UK referendum vote last June, exit polls showed that four in five of those currently in education and eligible to vote were opposed to Brexit. The continuing expansion of higher education broadens the base of personal confidence and capability, spreading the attributes of sociability itself.
To sustain the ongoing process of expansion it is essential that mass higher education is not emptied out of value in a highly stratified setting so it continues to draw first time participation from those whose parents were excluded.
The more higher education operates as a common good, the greater its social, economic and democratic contribution can be. Though higher education is not the primary driver of inequality, it has a role to play in rebuilding social solidarity and mobility in what have become fractured societies.
Simon Marginson is director of the ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, UK. Higher Education and the Common Good was released by Melbourne University Press just before Christmas and launched at the UCL Institute of Education on 18 January. Hardback, paperback and e-book versions (US$12 or £10) can be accessed here.
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