Red-top read­ing as rem­edy

How tabloids can heal so­cial di­vide

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - david.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Aca­demics should en­cour­age their stu­dents to read tabloid news­pa­pers and teach them that they are part of a “spe­cific so­cial mi­lieu” of highly ed­u­cated peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the co-au­thor of a new book that ar­gues that mass higher ed­u­ca­tion has helped to open up a huge po­lit­i­cal and so­cial di­vide in Western Europe.

Mark Bovens, pro­fes­sor of gov­er­nance at Utrecht Univer­sity, and Anchrit Wille, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of gov­er­nance at Lei­den Univer­sity, write in Di­ploma Democ­racy: The Rise of Po­lit­i­cal Mer­i­toc­racy that univer­sity grad­u­ates have come to “dom­i­nate all rel­e­vant po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and are­nas”.

Af­ter 2016 elec­toral vic­to­ries for Don­ald Trump and the cam­paign for the UK to leave the Euro­pean Union, a num­ber of com­men­ta­tors ar­gued that lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion now split voters more than tra­di­tional cleav­ages such as wealth. The chief con­tri­bu­tion of this new book, Pro­fes­sor Bovens told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, is to an­a­lyse the im­pact of po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance by grad­u­ates – and how it alien­ates non-grad­u­ate voters.

Af­ter the UK’s 2015 gen­eral election, nine out of 10 Bri­tish MPs were grad­u­ates. In the Ger­man Bun­destag af­ter 2013, 86 per cent had attended a higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tion, and there are sim­i­lar pat­terns in France, the Nether­lands, Den­mark and Bel­gium. This is de­spite the fact that more than 70 per cent of the elec­tor- ate in Western Europe is ed­u­cated to no higher than sec­ondary level, they write.

This mat­ters be­cause “ed­u­ca­tion is not po­lit­i­cally neu­tral, al­though a lot of aca­demics like to think that it is,” Pro­fes­sor Bovens said.

It means that MPs are “skewed” to­wards a “cos­mopoli­tan” view on is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and the Euro­pean Union, he said – the is­sues over which grad­u­ates and non-grad­u­ates are most keenly split.

Politi­cians are “of course” still able to act on be­half of non­grad­u­ates, he ac­knowl­edged, but be­cause grad­u­ates in­creas­ingly tend to live in their own so­cial mi­lieu, they “have to make more of an ef­fort” to find out the con­cerns of other parts of the elec­torate, he said.

It is also a “sym­bolic” prob­lem that so many politi­cians are grad­u­ates – just as it would be if they were all white or male – be­cause it sig­nals to non-grad­u­ates that “you’re not fit to gov­ern”, he added.

But one key ques­tion is whether univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion makes peo­ple more cos­mopoli­tan – or whether cos­mopoli­tan in­di­vid­u­als are sim­ply more likely to go to univer­sity. Pro­fes­sor Bovens ac­knowl­edged that the “jury is still out” on this ques­tion, but ar­gued that it was likely to be a mix­ture of the two.

“Univer­sity pre­pares you with the in­tel­lec­tual equip­ment to deal with the com­plex­ity of im­mi­gra­tion and glob­al­i­sa­tion”, for ex­am­ple, by spend­ing time abroad and study­ing other cul­tures, he said.

But, he added, “it’s not just a mat­ter of [grad­u­ates] un­der­stand­ing di­ver­sity bet­ter. It’s also a mat­ter of dif­fer­ent [eco­nomic] in­ter­ests.”

One ex­am­ple was free­dom of move­ment within the EU, which ex­panded the job op­por­tu­ni­ties of the highly ed­u­cated, he ar­gued, but ex­posed oth­ers to com­pe­ti­tion from cheaper for­eign work­ers. To re­dress this, the EU could of­fer its Eras­mus+ stu­dent mo­bil­ity pro­gramme to vo­ca­tional stu­dents as it does to univer­sity stu­dents.

To try to ad­dress the prob­lem, Pro­fes­sor Bovens said that he tells his po­lit­i­cal science and pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion stu­dents – who will likely end up as fu­ture pol­i­cy­mak­ers – to also read tabloid news­pa­pers, and above all to re­mem­ber that “you’re not a good pro­fes­sional if you don’t re­alise that you live in a spe­cific so­cial en­vi­ron­ment”.

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