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How higher education became an issue of identity

As ministers go after the Race Equality Charter, Jonathan Simons explains why it serves the government to push identity issues in fighting the culture war
This article is more than 1 year old

Jonathan is a partner and head of education at Public First

I was speaking to a university last Monday. “Oh”, they sighed. “We’ve just received a Michelle”. Such is the university minister’s keenness for correspondence, her name has become synonymous with the letters themselves among some in the sector, joining such neologisms as the Streisand Effect, and a Ratner moment.

The latest missive was of course concerning the Race Equality Charter. But, like an overeager penpal, some universities observed that they hadn’t even had time to reply to her last message. And she left her cell, her home phone and her pager on the bottom, as well.

But why the fuss about the Race Equality Charter? Is it, that higher education is now a “wedge issue”, to use the popular parlance, and if so, what should be done about it?

A wedge issue in politics is one that unites all of your supporters in one place, but that splits your opponents in terms of how to respond. So for the Conservative Party, Brexit was, and remains, their ultimate wedge issue (once they had shaken off their own former MPs, and voters, who didn’t get behind the new position). In the next general election, the Tories will once again claim that Labour will reverse Brexit, and attempt to split the opposition between those who agree with that, and those who deny it.

Train strikes are another wedge issue. The Conservatives (whose voters overwhelmingly opposed the strikes) very successfully split the Labour vote between those who sympathized with the workers, and stood on picket lines, and some who stood behind passengers and the public. The salience of the issue faded when it became clear that the public were equally split, but instinctively, it had all the hallmarks of a classic wedge.

University, and higher education politics is more what I would call an identity issue. In other words, it is less about dividing an opponent, and more about different groups of voters using it as a badge or a shorthand of all sorts of economic and social issues, and positioning themselves accordingly.

Identity issues can be owned, and celebrated, by groups, or used to denigrate others. So in the case of higher education, whether one is a graduate or not conveys, in shorthand, an assumed set of values, predispositions, and outlook on life. Many graduates enthusiastically embrace such a label; some non-graduates use it as a way of defining themselves by opposition to that assumed set of values. (And of course, many in each set do depart from the assumed values of the majority within the set).

Similarly, one’s view on whether there should be more people going to university is often shorthand for a wider set of views on how taxpayers’ money is spent, the future of the labour market, young people’s values, and so on. Again, some people embrace the identity that says there should be lots of graduates, and others embrace the identity that there should be fewer, and both sides can – not always, but sometimes – use their identity label to denigrate the other.

At its most all-consuming, these identities become what has been termed in the US “mega identities”. In other words, one single identity suffices as a shorthand for almost every single other thing about that person’s life, and there is very little overlap in any of the sub activities between people who form different mega identities. Knowing whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat in the US is increasingly a proxy for knowing everything about them. Writing in the New Yorker (again, a very good example of a magazine that aligns almost entirely to one mega identity), Elizabeth Kolbert summarises extensive research on the forming of mega identities, and shows, among other things, that these have become so all-consuming that the twenty television shows most popular among Republicans were completely different from those favoured by Democrats.

So when Michelle Donelan tells universities not to sign up to the Race Equality Charter, I don’t doubt that she personally feels that it is an unhelpful and polarising attempt to use the trend of EDI and related diversity activities to instead sow division, and itself act as a wedge issue. You can see echoes of this in, for example, moves by several government departments (including DfE) to disestablish themselves from Stonewall’s various charters, including on the grounds that (as was also cited in The Michelle), such charters are felt to stifle free speech.

But she is also using it, I would posit, as an identity issue. It’s clearly not a cost issue. Saying that paying a few thousand pounds for membership to a voluntary charter will have an impact on a nine-figure university budget is about as plausible as those who claim if local councillors stopped having biscuits at their meetings, we could meet the cost of social care without raising council tax.

As well as a genuine view that such badges and charters are unhelpful, taking aim at this is a signal to others for whom this area is one they treat with scepticism – which is a view more predominantly held among Conservative voters – that the government takes a clear position. And that those on the other side – universities, in this instance – are of a different identity.

I pass precisely no comment on the actual merit or otherwise of the charter, and of the beliefs or otherwise of the government and its supporters on free speech and on EDI issues. I’m interested in whether it works as an identity issue. Are there large constituencies out there who can be mobilised by universities, in their broadest sense, becoming part of an identity issue on both sides?

Going back to the US again, we can clearly see that there is. Polling for Pew Research Centre on the question “do universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the county?” found Democrats splitting 79-21 in favour of yes, and Republicans splitting 36-64 in favour of no (once don’t knows are excluded). But when we, in conjunction with the UPPF Foundation and HEPI, ran the same question last year, we found much more nuance. Overall, the public split 79-21 yes. Labour voters said 87-13 yes, and Conservatives said 73-27 yes. Or taking another cut, Remain voters said 88-12 yes, and Leave voters said 69-31 yes. So while there’s clearly some partisan split, we don’t see anywhere near the same level of division.

This echoes a lot of what we see in focus groups. Often, people will say that they think too many people are going to university, and will say there ought to be more apprenticeships for young people. Older people tend, all things being equal, to be the most negatively inclined. But there’s no real rancour in the debate; people recognise the good that graduates and universities do; and revealed preferences continually show that while young people and employers are interested in both routes, university still remains the dominant pathway for most.

In his latest research, including that which was presented to Wonkhe, Bobby Duffy from King’s finds the same. His conclusion is “there’s not a great deal of awareness or particular focus among the UK public about universities being in the front line of this [culture war]”. Keir Starmer’s likely dropping of commitment to free tuition also suggests that he doesn’t want to draw too much from the mega identity of graduates, and has more to gain from showing economic competence to voters across the spectrum.

That doesn’t, however, mean that universities can and should relax. There are a number of issues coming down the line (China, anyone?) which do have much wider visibility than race equality charters. Without clear advance thinking, universities could easily find themselves part of an identity issue – and on the wrong side of one, too.

One response to “How higher education became an issue of identity

  1. An interesting article! I think generally the British public are supportive of our universities – its just they don’t always see the linkages eg: Oxford vaccine. Howver there are many Red Wall families who are aspirational for their own kids to go to university. It is an own goal to shrink provision in that way.

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