Only a quarter of Britons with a university degree voted Leave, which has led many to conclude that education makes people less Eurosceptic. Sander Kunst (University of Amsterdam) tested this theory and found that the association is not simple.
A small majority of 51.9% voted to Leave the EU. Recent studies show that education level was one of the most important determinants for voting Leave or Remain. The work of Sara Hobolt clearly illustrates this point. She shows that around 70% of Britons without any qualifications voted Leave, while only 25% of voters with a university degree did. This divide led the Independent to speculate that Brexit could have been prevented if only Britons received slightly more education.
It is an interesting proposition: could Brexit have been prevented if the population had spent a few more years in school? More generally, is there a causal relationship between education and Euroscepticism? In a recently published article in European Union Politics, Theresa Kuhn, Herman van de Werfhorst and I have examined this specific question.
The clear relationship between education and Euroscepticism is not only visible in the UK. Those with more years of education report more enthusiasm for the EU in almost every western European country (see figure 1). Although these differences have been present since the 1970s, the gap between different levels of education in Euroscepticism has been significantly exacerbated over time.
Figure 1: Euroscepticism in western Europe between 1973 and 2018
A number of explanations have been put forward to explain this divide. The higher educated are more supportive of the EU as they profit more than the less educated from further European integration, due to their knowledge and skills. Because of the disappearance of hard borders within Europe, studying or working in another EU member state is a realistic possibility for many. However, this possibility seems to be especially available for those with higher educational credentials. For example, a cashier at Tesco in Birmingham is less likely to move to Austria to get another job than a computer programmer who can market her or his skills anywhere in Europe. As the ‘winners’ of globalisation, they are not limited by national borders and can enjoy all the benefits that European integration offers. And as a result, they are more positive about the EU.
Education is also thought to socialise students into a set of (cosmopolitan) values, such as diversity, pluralism and individual freedom. As a result, a higher level of education is associated with holding fewer nationalist sentiments and feelings of being culturally threatened. This in turn may boost support for cosmopolitan political projects such as the EU.
…to causal relationship?
The implicit assumption of these explanations is that the relationship is causal: spending more years at school and university leads to a more positive opinion about the EU.
But is this the case? The mechanisms described above are primarily examined using research designs that can only test for association, not causality. Moreover, recent studies show that a variety of background variables is associated both with educational attainment and political attitudes (here, here and here). Many of these factors (e.g. political socialisation at home, cognitive skills etc.) are hard to quantify and/or to take up in commonly used statistical models. By omitting these variables it is likely that previous work has overestimated the effect of education on Euroscepticism.
The ‘gold standard’ to test for causal relationships is to conduct an experiment. In the perfect scenario, we would recruit a group of students, flip a coin to determine who will quit school and who will continue studying, and afterwards see if there is a significant difference in Euroscepticism between the two groups. Of course, this is a pipe dream, since no ethical board would ever approve this plan…
To approximate the causal relationship between years of schooling and Euroscepticism we therefore use a quasi-experimental method, namely a regression discontinuity design. We focus on five changes in the education systems of Great Britain (1947, 1972), the Netherlands (1974), Denmark (1958) and Sweden (1965), which as a result changed the compulsory schooling age. In our study we compare the cohorts that were just below and just on or above the threshold to be exposed to the reforms. Whether a child was exposed to the reform or not is in the end dependent on chance. Accidentally being born a year later or earlier can mean a year (or more) of additional schooling, while many other important background variables will be identical.
The results of our study indicate that cohorts that were just below and just on or above the threshold to be exposed to the reforms differ significantly in their years of schooling (see figure 2). However, when we look at attitudes towards the EU (support for further European integration and trust in the European Parliament) we do see differences, but these differences are not statistically significant (see figure 3). Put differently, the additional schooling did not significantly impact their attitudes towards the EU. In contrast to the robust association found in the political science literature, we do not find conclusive evidence for a causal relationship between education and Euroscepticism.
Figure 2: Average years of schooling for each birth cohort (with 95% confidence interval)
Figure 3: Effect of schooling on Euroscepticism (with 95% confidence interval).
What does this all mean?
It is important to note that this does not mean that education cannot have an effect on Euroscepticism. In our study we only look at changes for the period people are in high school and analyse relatively older generations. The research design we used is very useful for uncovering causal effects, but this comes with a price: our results are hard to generalise to other contexts. For example, should we examine the consequences of university attendance, instead of high school? Could there possibly be an effect of schooling for younger generations who grow up in a world where the EU is self-evident? More research is necessary to determine if, and how, education influences the formation of political attitudes. So could Brexit have been prevented with more education? Maybe…
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
Sander Kunst is a PhD candidate in the Sociology and the Political Science departments of the University of Amsterdam. His PhD project seeks to investigate the mechanisms underlying the educational divide in cosmopolitan attitudes in Western societies in the age of globalisation.