Britain risks more political and social turmoil unless politics and business offer more opportunity and respect to people who do not have a university degree, a former Cabinet minister warns today (21 Sept).
Baroness Stowell of Beeston, the former Leader of the House of Lords, said that the gaps between graduates and non-graduates are now the most important division in Britain today, threatening the country’s social cohesion and political stability.
Stowell’s comments come in a pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation think-tank, "The education divide is about disrespect: why it matters and what graduates should do about it" in which she urges politicians, journalists and business leaders to show more respect and understanding for people who do not have a university degree.
Stowell’s paper highlights academic evidence that a person’s education, rather than their social class, is now the best predictor of voting behaviour in Britain.
She notes that the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election both saw voters divide more along educational than class lines. In the referendum only a quarter of people with a postgraduate degree voted to leave, whereas over two-thirds of those with no qualifications did so.
In 2019, the Conservatives outperformed Labour by more than two to one amongst those whose highest qualifications do not exceed GSCE.
Despite the expansion of higher education in recent years, the majority of British adults do not hold a university degree. Yet graduates now dominate politics, media, business and other positions of influence, Stowell notes.
The result is that many in the non-graduate majority are often left feeling ignored and excluded not just from jobs and roles but from the national conversation. Unless that changes, more political ruptures such as Brexit may occur, as non-graduate voters reject the status quo, she suggested.
“Too often our graduate-led political conversation decides whether a person is deserving of respect on the basis of their educational attainment. Those who don’t meet the grade find that they and their – legitimate and reasonable – opinions are dismissed. We’re in for a lot more disruption via the ballot box if we don’t stop and reverse this trend.”
Stowell attended an FE college in Nottingham before becoming a senior BBC executive then a member of David Cameron’s Cabinet. She said that people in positions of authority and leadership must do much more to understand and respect those who did not go to university.
“The surprising results and disruption we’ve seen via the ballot box in recent years – welcome or otherwise – have been in large part delivered by people with fewer academic credentials. But they are not the people who don’t understand or who need to change.
“The results of those democratic events are symptoms, not the cause of our divisions. If we want to avoid that kind of unexpected and sudden disruption happening again, it’s the graduates and decision-makers who need to act.”
Stowell said that Britain needs a culture change so that people who do not have degrees find it easier to achieve success and respect in the workplace, and a platform in politics.
“At the moment, many of the majority of people in the UK who did not go to university are quietly and modestly achieving success on their own terms but feel they are not taken seriously, or that they are taken for granted. Their efforts and contributions are not fully recognised in their country’s politics or its economy. This cannot go on. The people who lead our country on politics and economics, who almost all did go to university, must do more to respect and understand those who did not.
"If we ignore where we’re going wrong, don’t change how we behave, and limit ourselves to economic solutions, we won’t succeed in bridging this divide. And if we fail, we risk becoming more divided, and political disruption continuing – and possibly worsening.
"But this is not an exercise in damage limitation. It’s a chance to do better, for politics and business alike, by offering more respect and greater opportunities to people who didn’t happen to go to university.”
Bridging the divide between the two groups requires compromise by graduate-led institutions, Stowell argues. Politicians and businesses should do more to restore the social norms that gave non-graduates esteem and respect in society.
People who do non-graduate jobs – for instance, bus drivers and shop workers – should be seen as authority figures. Instead of reserving jobs and authority for graduates, employers should give people without degrees more opportunities to progress and lead, she says
James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation said:
“Tina Stowell writes powerfully on the basis of her experience at the highest levels of government and media. She’s part of the group of people who get to decide how things are run and what gets talked about, but she’s also keenly aware of the views and experiences of people who feel shut out of those decisions. The educational divide is a story of two tribes, and Tina Stowell is rare in knowing them both well. Her paper captures one of the biggest challenges facing Britain today.”