A new, educational divide has become visible in Western European democracies. In the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK, the Leave vote was much higher in those regions of England populated by citizens with low education qualifications, and much lower in those regions with a larger number of university graduates. According to Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath: “fifteen of the 20 ‘least educated’ areas voted to leave the EU while every single one of the 20 ‘most educated’ areas voted to remain.”

Likewise, in the 2017 French presidential elections education level was the strongest predictor of the Macron vote. In the top 10 per cent of the most educated regions, Macron won no less than 84 per cent of the vote, as opposed to only 53 per cent in the least educated regions. And in the 2017 Dutch and German elections, nationalist parties, such as PVV and AfD, were much more popular among the least and middle educated, whereas GroenLinks, D66, and Die Grüne got the votes of the university graduates. The rise of this new divide offers both opportunities and challenges for green and social-liberal parties. 

The rise of the educational divide

Education has become a very relevant factor to understand the contours of the contemporary political landscape in Western Europe. The educational expansion of the late 20th century has caused massive demographic changes, notably the rise of the well-educated as a large social segment. Two generations ago, in the early 1960s, there were no distinct educational groups in society. The major divides were between social classes, most notoriously in the UK, but also in Germany and Italy; or between religious groups, such as Catholics and protestants in the Netherlands and in Northern Ireland. In 1960, only one per cent of the population in the Netherlands had the equivalent of a college degree, three percent had secondary qualifications, and an overwhelming 96 per cent had no qualifications beyond primary education. By 2017, about one third of the population is well educated, one third has medium qualifications, and one third has primary qualifications only.

In the Netherlands, 85 per cent of all marriages are between partners with similar educational qualifications.

Educational homogamy has replaced religious homogamy. In the Netherlands, 85 per cent of all marriages are between partners with similar educational qualifications. Only two out of a thousand marriages are between a partner with a university degree and a partner with primary qualifications only. This increases social inequality, as the cultural and economic capital of the well-educated partners is then pooled and cumulates. 

The well educated and the less well educated live in different social worlds and do not mingle. University graduates watch public television and read ‘quality’ papers. They live in a university town, a green pre-war suburb, or in the 19th century, gentrified parts of the inner cities, such as Prenslauer Berg in Berlin, De Pijp in Amsterdam, or Notting Hill in London. Those whose educational career ended after junior high school or primary vocational training tend to watch commercial television and read tabloid papers – if they read a paper at all. They live in former industrial areas and manufacturing towns, in the post-war satellite cities, such as Marzahn in Berlin, Lelystad in the Netherlands, or Slough in England, or in the 20th century outskirts of the major cities. Educational groups also differ in health, life expectancies, wealth, and income.

Over the course of the past decades, the educational gap in political participation has become considerable too. For example, citizens with primary and secondary qualifications have all but disappeared from Western European parliaments, including the European Parliament. After the introduction of universal suffrage at the beginning of the 20th century, the proportion of deputies with university degrees decreased substantially in most countries. However, after WWII the number of MPs with higher educational qualifications started to increase, first gradually and then sharply from the seventies onwards. In 2017, in most Western European parliaments up to 90 per cent of the MPs has the equivalent of at least a college degree.

Figure 1: MPs with higher education since 1854 (%, source: Gaxie & Godmer 2007: 112; Belgium data: Verleden & Heyneman; own data).

This massive overrepresentation of university graduates in Parliament is a source of policy incongruence and political distrust. Different levels of education nowadays lead to diverging political preferences, particularly with regard to salient cultural issues, such as the EU, immigration, and national identity. Studies by Dutch political scientists Hakhverdian and Schakel show that policy congruence with regard to theses salient issues is 94 per cent between MPs and well educated voters, but only 56 per cent with the less educated voters. It should come as no surprise that the well-educated citizens feel included in the political process. They see immigration and EU unification not as threats, but as opportunities. Less well-educated citizens, on the other hand, tend to be sceptical about the EU, and worry about crime and immigration. They show high levels of social distrust and political cynicism.

This massive overrepresentation of university graduates in Parliament is a source of policy incongruence and political distrust.

Education level is also the most important factor regarding the rise of a new, cultural conflict dimension in Western politics. Traditionally, most voters in Western Europe could be positioned along a social-economic, left–right dimension and along a religious–secular dimension. In addition to these traditional conflict dimensions, which reach back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a new cultural conflict dimension has manifested itself in the past three decades. The crucial themes along this cultural dimension are immigration, globalisation, and European integration. This new division between what could be called ‘cosmopolitans’ and ‘nationalists’ has emerged gradually, fuelled by the waves of non-western immigration and the process of European unification. Ranged on one side of this new line of conflict are the citizens who accept social and cultural heterogeneity and who favour, or at least condone, multiculturalism. These are the more highly educated. On the other side are citizens who are highly critical of multiculturalism and who prefer a more homogeneous national culture. These are predominantly citizens with lower education levels. 

Education and voting tendencies

This educational divide also manifests itself in structural changes in the political landscape in Western Europe. On the one side of the new cultural dimension of conflict, we have seen the emergence of Green and social-liberal parties, such as Groen and Ecolo in Belgium, Les Verts in France, the Greens in Germany, D66 and GroenLinks in the Netherlands, and the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom, to name but a few. Since the late seventies, they have become established political actors throughout Western Europe. In all countries, the green and social-liberal parties predominantly attract voters from the high end of the education spectrum, as shown in Figure 2. [1]

Figure 2: Link between education and support for Green and Left-liberal parties (2014)

On the other side of this cultural conflict, we see the emergence of nationalist populist parties such as the FPÖ in Austria, Vlaams Belang and NV-A in Belgium, the Danish People’s Party, the Finns Party, France’s Front National, the AfD in Germany, Lega Nord in Italy, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats, and UKIP. In Western Europe, these nationalist parties tend to draw large proportions of the low and medium-educated voters, and relatively few well-educated voters as shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3: Link between education and support for nationalist parties (2014)

Crossing the divide

These new Eurosceptic and nationalist parties, with a populist style, have successfully campaigned on a platform that addresses the issues and preferences of the low and medium educated segments of the electorate. Mind you, some of these political entrepreneurs were very highly educated. For example, Bart de Wever, the leader of the N-VA in Flanders, was a PhD student in history and made it to the final of the TV quiz De slimste mens ter wereld (‘The smartest person in the world’). Pim Fortuyn, the charismatic leader of the LPF in the Netherlands, was a part-time professor in sociology at one point in his career. And Boris Johnson, the flamboyant leader of the Brexit campaign in the Conservative Party, studied classics at Balliol College in Oxford. Despite their ‘booksmart’ backgrounds and dandyish behaviour, they struck a chord with many less well-educated voters. They have operated as a mouthpiece for the low and medium educated and they have forced the traditional, mainstream political parties to pay more attention to the negative effects of immigration, globalisation, and European unification.

Green and social-liberal political parties find themselves at the cosmopolitan side of this new divide. This offers them opportunities for a clear and consistent political profile. Unlike the traditional social-democratic parties, they are not torn apart between their cosmopolitan cadres and MPs on the one hand and their more nationalist working class electorates on the other hand. On issues such as the EU, immigration and multiculturalism, their programs align perfectly well with the preferences of their college-educated voters. They can, moreover, position themselves as the natural antipodes of the nationalist, populist parties. This frame provides them – and their opponents – with much media attention and a clear playing field.

This new educational divide is rather troubling given the egalitarian and emancipatory ethos of green and social-liberal parties.

However, the rise of this new educational divide is rather troubling given the egalitarian and emancipatory ethos of green and social-liberal parties. It raises the question whether they have lost contact with the less well-off parts of society. Have they become blind to their worries and concerns, because the well-educated members and MPs of green parties live in different parts of town, send their children to different schools, and never meet on Facebook. For example, one can argue that the social-liberal and green parties have neglected the fact that globalisation and EU unification play out differently for lower and better educated parts of the population. For the university educated, the EU has brought Erasmus programmes, cross border labour markets, and higher wages. For the lesser educated, immigration and globalisation tend to mean more competition on the local labour and housing markets, lower wages, and less-secure jobs.  

Another somewhat ominous example is the abolition of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands in February 2018. As with the EU, there is a strong educational gradient with regard to preferences for direct democracy in Western Europe. The lesser educated are much more in favour of referenda than the well-educated. For decades D66, the Dutch leading social-liberal party, championed the introduction of referenda. However, after the referendum was used several times to question the EU, it was abolished by the new coalition government, on the initiative of a D66 minister. This not only raises the question whether they have lost their legitimacy as spokespersons of the less-well to do, but, even worse, whether have they become representatives of the new, professional elites instead. 

What is the best way forward for green and liberal parties? The easiest would be to capitalise on their clear and consistent profile as niche cosmopolitan parties defending a fair globalization. An alternative would be to engage with labour movements and other actors to ensure that their cosmopolitanism leaves room for local concerns around international trade and labour issues. In this regard they could take inspiration from Macron in France, who, despite his ‘book-smart’ background, is governing on a programme that tries to address the concerns on both sides of the educational divide. 



[1] Figures 2 and 3 show the percentage of people who had voted for selected green and left-liberal or nationalist parties in the previous election from different educational groups. Figures are compiled using the 2014 European Social Survey.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.