Is the independence movement a child of university expansion?

One of the great social revolutions of our time has been the expansion of higher education. In the Scottish Election Surveys of the 1970s, just 9% of adults had gained a higher-education qualification. In the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey of 2012, the figure had quadrupled to 36%.

This massive change has occurred in parallel with the growth of interest in constitutional change. Indeed the change in support for independence between the 1970s and now is uncannily similar to the growth of higher education – it too has risen four-fold over this period, from 6% in 1974 to 23% in 2012.

We might be tempted to speculate, therefore, that the educational expansion has fuelled the change in views about Scotland’s governing system. After all, nationalism and education have often rhetorically gone together. Small countries often seek to use schools and universities to renew the nation’s culture. Education in Scotland has been claimed to be an icon of identity. The Scottish cultural renewal of the last thirty years has, in large part, appealed mainly to the well-educated – readers of novels and poems, theatre-goers, the kind of people who buy books about Scottish history, society or politics. Perhaps it is this newly well-educated population that has above all acquired the self-confidence to take charge of its own affairs.

But things are not quite so simple. Education is also associated with factors that are well-known to be, in turn, associated with low levels of support for independence. Scotland is no exception to the common pattern in which education is associated with being less left-wing, and being less left-wing is associated with opposition to independence. Women have higher levels of education than men, and are less likely to support independence. And higher education leads people into professional and managerial jobs, and thus into the social classes that have the weakest support for independence.

So do the 2012 SSA data tell us about which perspective is right? The most basic point is that they do not lend any support to the idea that the increase in university education might lie behind the growth of support for independence. In 2012, people with a university degree were less likely to support independence than those without (17% compared to 25%). And that gap is exactly the same as it was two decades ago (15% compared to 23%) in the Scottish Election Survey of 1992.

What can explain the relative reluctance of graduates to support independence? Contrary to expectations, sex and ideological position do not explain it away. Education trumps sex. The degree gap is present for men as well as for women, and, indeed, men with a degree are no more likely to support independence (19%) than women without a degree (21%), even though overall 27% of men back independence but only 20% of women.

Likewise, education trumps ideology. Degree holders who are to the left on a standard scale measuring left-right position show no higher support for independence than people on the right who are not degree holders (25% compared to 23%), even though 27% of all those on the left support independence compared with 20% of those on the right.

What does account for the degree gap in support for independence is occupation. Specifically, among employers and professionals, support for independence is much the same among people who do not have a degree (18%) as it as among those who do (16%). In short those with a degree, many of whom are an employer or engaged in a professional occupation simply share the scepticism of all those in such positions,  irrespective of whether they have been to university or not.

The educational expansion of the last fifty years has probably not had much impact on the level of support for independence either way. Education has led people into professional jobs, of which there are many more now than in the 1970s, and these occupations have influenced their political views more than their education has as such. What counts, as so often in politics, is the economy.

You can read about Scottish Social Attitudes on the ScotCen website or explore the 2012 findings for yourself. This site also contains headline figures from constitutional change questions from 1992 Scottish Election Study and 1979 Scottish Election Study.

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About the author

Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Educational Policy in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. His main research interests are in education, civic engagement and political attitudes. Under the auspices of the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN), he is involved in several ESRC-funded research projects that are analysing public attitudes relating to the Scottish independence referendum.