2016 was a year of unexpected political events. Britain decided to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), and Donald Trump became the president of the United States.
People without university degrees strongly favoured Trump and Brexit
Exit polls following both Brexit and Trump votes revealed that University education was one of the strongest predictors of voting patterns.
According to a BBC report, wards where the population had lower numbers of University graduates tended to vote for Britain to leave the European Union. In fact, of the main demographic information collected in the most recent UK census, the proportion of University graduates in a given ward was the best indicator of whether people voted in favour of Brexit.
Similarly, Trump won 44 of the 50 counties with the lowest rates of tertiary education in the US. In contrast, only 10 of the 50 counties with the higest rates of tertiary education voted for Trump.
So why did British and American citizens without a University degree vote in favour of Brexit and Trump?
In the U.S. the disparity in job availability between people with and without University Degrees has risen since the 2008 recession
A prominent complaint among Trump voters was that the previous government had been “out of touch” with the working class. At least one aspect in which this appears to be true is in relation to unemployment numbers following the recession of 2008. In his final State of the Union address President Obama proudly proclaimed that America was in the middle of “the longest streak of private sector job creation in history”, and that anyone claiming America’s economy is in decline was “peddling fiction”.
It is certainly true that America saw significant growth in private sector jobs during Obama’s presidency. Yet there is increasing evidence that these jobs disproportionately went to people with University qualifications. According to a recent study conducted at Georgetown University, U.S. workers with Bachelor’s degrees or higher lost 187,000 jobs in the recession, but then recovered around 8.4 million jobs in the years since. In stark contrast, workers with a high-school diploma or less, lost 5.6 million jobs in the recession, and recovered only 80,000 to date. From the perspective of these Americans, who lost their jobs during the recession and never got them back, it is easy to imagine how Obama’s statements on jobs growth could be perceived as “out of touch”.
Workers with more than a high school education gained almost all of the jobs added in the recovery
(Source: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, America's Divided Recovery)
The views of university educated people are over-represented in government and the media
One notable aspect of this divided recovery since the recession is that, in both the U.K. and U.S., university educated people are still a minority. In fact, according to census data from both countries, the proportion of all adults holding a University degree is around 33% in the U.S., and 20% in the U.K. If the voices of people without University degrees do indeed represent the majority, how did democratic government policies (which are meant to be influenced by majority opinion) lead to so many falling through the cracks during the years following the recession?
One explanation may be that the under-representation of non-University educated individuals in government and the media meant that these institutions were not properly equipped to understand the needs of non-University graduates. At least 90% of members of parliament in both the U.S. and the U.K. have University degrees. A study in the U.S. also found that over 90% of journalists are University graduates. It is also possible that this over-representation of University educated interests was an underlying driver of one of the key themes in both the Trump and Brexit elections – a desire to overthrow the political establishment.
What does this mean for Australia?
Senator Pauline Hanson (leader of the One-Nation party) has often been compared to Trump. Indeed, a study conducted by the ABC, found that, like in the U.S. and U.K., people living in areas with low tertiary education levels were more likely to vote for One-Nation in the 2016 Federal Election.
Although not as pronounced as the U.K. or U.S., Australia is also experiencing disproportionate job growth for University educated workers. To a certain extent, this disproportionate increase in jobs requiring a University degree may be an unavoidable reality for many modern industrialised nations. As countries get more developed, higher basic wages often mean that it becomes less viable for companies to continue manufacturing goods there. Higher wages also mean that companies are driven to adopt automation in order to cut costs.
However, in the face of such rapid changes, we also need to ensure that our political institutions adapt accordingly, so that they do not become out of touch with the interests of certain sections of our society. As with the U.S. and U.K., the disproportionate increase in jobs requiring tertiary degrees, combined with a lack of representation of the voices non-University graduates in our institutions may lead to the division of our own politics by University education.
The first step in communicating across this divide is realising that lack of representativeness is a problem. It is also essential to ensure that there are conventional institutional avenues in government and the media by which less well-educated communities can express grievances and needs, and meaningfully participate in public discourse.
Understanding group conflict and moral polarization is a major focus of my PhD.
- Joshua Rhee
Joshua Rhee is a PhD Candidate at The University of Melbourne's School of Psychological Sciences. He completed his Honours research in the Social Change Lab in 2016.
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