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Universities as “left-wing madrassas” are a myth

It's long been argued that universities turn people liberal. Elizabeth Simon has data to suggest we should treat such claims with scepticism
This article is more than 1 year old

Elizabeth Simon is a PhD candidate in the Department of Social Statistics and Demography at the University of Southampton

The link between education and liberal socio-cultural values is one of the most well-established in the social sciences.

In Britain, this “educational gap” in cultural attitudes manifests itself largely in terms of a divide between university graduates and non-graduates. Those who have studied at university are, on average, considerably more culturally liberal than those who have not.

Liberal madness

The graph below uses data from the British Household Panel and Understanding Society surveys to show that British graduates tend to be more gender egalitarian and environmentally friendly than their less educated counterparts.


University faculty are also disproportionately liberal. Professors, on average, exhibit substantially more liberal cultural attitudes than individuals who work in managerial and professional jobs of a similar social standing. A number of vocal right-leaning commentators have taken this as evidence that universities indoctrinate their students. They posit that the link between education and liberalism is driven by “woke” professors “brainwashing” their students with “leftist agendas” and “liberal madness” on university campuses.

The increasing frequency and ferocity with which these claims have been made, and the lack of supporting evidence for this indoctrination hypothesis, has fuelled a hotly contested debate about the role of higher education in modern societies.

What’s going on?

So what causes British university graduates to possess such a distinctive set of liberal cultural attitudes? My recent paper “Demystifying the link between higher education and liberal values: A within-sibship analysis of British individuals’ attitudes from 1994–2020”, published in the British Journal of Sociology, seeks to answer precisely this question.

While it is certainly plausible that the direct experiential effect of studying for a degree could cause individuals to become more liberal, it is also possible that this association may be entirely spurious.

The difference in attitudes could be explained by self-selection effects; whereby liberal individuals disproportionately choose to study for, and ultimately end up completing, degrees on the basis of their particular pre-adult characteristics (for example, their socio-economic resources or parental socialisation). Or it could also be driven by adult stratification-based confounders – for example, the fact that graduates typically earn more than non-graduates, and that income determines our attitudes.

So identifying the independent effect of higher education on individuals’ cultural attitudes is no easy task, as this effect will be overestimated if any important pre- or post-university confounders are omitted in analysis. My study uses the unique household structure of the British Household Panel and Understanding Society surveys – which follow all individuals living in sampled households over several decades – to provide robust estimates of higher education’s effect on British individuals attitudes in the period 1994-2020, by using sibling fixed-effects to control for unmeasured family-invariant pre-adult experiences.

Almost entirely spurious

My study uses two cultural attitudinal scales which measure gender egalitarianism and environmentalism. Both were created by averaging scores over various Likert scale items and run from 1-5 with higher values representing increasingly liberal viewpoints (more gender egalitarian and more environmentally friendly). Positive coefficients for higher education in my analysis therefore indicate liberalising effects.

My findings demonstrate that the association of university study with liberal cultural attitudes is almost entirely spurious.

This can be seen clearly in the fact that once controls for measured selection-into-education and adult status-based confounders are included in Model 2, the size of the direct effect of university study on cultural attitudes reduces dramatically, as compared to in Model 1 (without these confounders). While the effects estimated in Model 2 remain large enough to indicate that statistically significant attitudinal differences between graduates and non-graduates exist in Britain (the confidence intervals do not overlap the zero line), the same cannot be said for Model 3.

In this model, which includes the fullest controls for spurious higher education effects – sibling fixed-effects, which allow estimation of this effect within-sibship groups only – the “liberalising” effect of university study on gender egalitarianism shrinks so close to zero that it becomes non-significant and is replaced by a small (also non-significant) negative effect for environmentalism. After controlling for unmeasured family-invariant pre-adult experiences in this way, studying at university no longer appears to have any statistically significant causal effect on British graduates’ cultural attitudes.

A real absence, or better estimates needed?

This finding could be taken as evidence that the experience of studying for a university degree is not the cause of British graduates distinctively liberal cultural attitudes. However, these within-sibship estimates are considerably less precise than the other models’, as they are estimated on reduced samples (see the differing widths of their confidence intervals). It was therefore important to explore whether the lack of university effect reported in the within-sibship models estimated in my study stemmed from a genuine absence of effect or the fact that within-sibling estimates were too imprecise to be conclusive.

The dashed lines superimposed over the Model 3 results show the 95 per cent confidence intervals that would have been estimated had the full (rather than sibling only) sample been used. The fact that these intervals do not overlap zero suggests that the effects of university study on cultural attitudes estimated here would have been statistically significant in a larger sample. Because of this, I feel it is most appropriate to conclude that the results of my analysis demonstrate that university study has only a very small direct causal effect on individuals’ cultural attitudes in Britain, and that these effects are not always liberalising.

This is a clear, and strong, refutation of the indoctrination hypothesis.

What we now know

My findings not only show that studying at university has, at most, an extremely modest causal liberalising effect on British individuals’ cultural attitudes – with graduates reporting being just 0.05 points more gender egalitarian on a 1-5 scale than non-graduates – but that in some cases, higher education actually has the opposite effect (making individuals’ environmental attitudes more conservative).

In doing so, my study clearly demonstrates that universities are not the centres of left-liberal bias right-leaning commentators claim them to be. On the contrary, it suggests that the association of education with socio-cultural values observed in Britain today is largely spurious. British graduates exhibit more liberal cultural attitudes than non-graduates predominantly because liberals disproportionately select into higher education.

In addition to serving their intended function – of imparting skills and knowledge that prepare students for work, in line with the changing needs of society – do British universities also serve an unanticipated function, of driving further changes in society, by altering the socio-cultural attitudes of the population? The evidence presented in my recent study clearly suggests not.

In light of this conclusion, we must work to challenge the harmful and evidentially unfounded myth of university indoctrination. Failure to do so could not only further stoke educational divisions in society, but have damaging consequences in terms of the public perception and legitimacy, and funding situation, of the British higher education sector.

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