Why do graduates lean left?

James Paterson had an op-ed in yesterday’s Weekend Australian arguing that uni graduates lean left, and blaming it in part on academic bias.

I had a look at the party id question in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009 and the differences by qualification level are certainly striking. However people with TAFE certificates and diplomas have similar affiliations to people with bachelor degrees, despite the fact that there are few ‘political’ courses taught by these institutions.

On the other hand, those who spend longer at university, postgraduates, end up with more left-wing affiliations than bachelor degree holders. This leaves open the possibility of a ‘university’ effect on political views.

Party identification (%)

Traditional political science holds that socialisation/social factors are the major sources of political affiliations and views. I think this is right, so given that most people go to uni at a time when they are forming their adult identity – including their political identity – it is plausible that the general political environment on campus affects long-term political affiliations.

Academic political ‘bias’ may not be right way to describe this. Though James says he has experienced it, most people simply aren’t doing subjects that lend themselves to academic expression of political views, and many of those who are have as teachers professionals who offer balanced courses and fair marking.

This said, the campus political culture does assume that social democracy or further left is normal, while right-of-centre political views are regarded as unusual or an aberration. It would not be surprising if this attitude was internalised by some students.

Though university comes at a crucial time in most people’s identity formation, it is also a relatively short time in most people’s lives. People spend far more time at work than at university. Scott Steel has shown that electorates with high proportions of people working in Arts & Recreation Services, Information Media and Telecommunications and Education are more likely to support the Greens.

There weren’t enough graduates in the AuSSA 2009 working in those industries to look into this further, but I did try a rough division between industry occupations that were primarily for-profit and those that tended to be public sector. Graduates working in the private sector were clearly more likely to be Coalition supporters than those in the public sector. But the same underlying views may lead people to both work in the public sector and support Labor.

Another contrast that has appeared in the political science literature is gender, and there are significant differences, with female graduates more likely to be left-wing.

Unfortunately there was no question in the AuSSA 2009 on major field of study, and the gender differences may just reflect that rather than the sexes seeing political views differently (though women make up 60% of graduates, the imbalances are more extreme for relatively politicised faculties such as arts and education).

On the other hand, I would not be surprised if gender did end up being a factor. A major driver of the expanding state is the demand that it assist women both perform their traditional family roles and pursue careers. Middle-class graduates are among the principal beneficiaries of this trend, and it would not be surprising if this was reflected in their political allegiances.

While academic ‘bias’ is a bad thing, I suspect that even with all academics conducting themselves in a fully professional way we would still see the broad sociological patterns evident in the political partisanship polling.

23 thoughts on “Why do graduates lean left?

  1. Hi Andrew

    Interesting thoughts.

    Re: TAFE students. It’s certainly true to say that relative levels of support for Labor and the Coalition are similar to bachelor’s students, but my article was focused on the Greens. You’ll note support for the Greens is 1/3rd higher amongst bachelors degree holders than TAFE graduates. I’d suggest that is a substantial difference.

    One point I didn’t make in the article, but should have, is that the postgraduate students are in some ways the most important. University teaching staff are almost exclusively drawn from this category of education – providing more substantiation for the arguments that academics are more likely to be left wing.

    When you consider that against your public v private employment charts, and consider universities at least quasi-public sector employers, it’s likely that academia leans even further to the left. This is particularly the case when you consider many postgrad degree holders would be studying, for example, MBAs, and probably return to private sector employment.


  2. James – There’s probably a real difference between TAFE and bachelor degree holders, though their Green support 95% confidence levels overlap 4.4% to 7.6%; 6.5% to 11.5%.

    Education is about 40% of all public sector workers in this sample; to do more in-depth study I would probably need to combine multiple recent surveys to try to get sample sizes that are meaningful.

    I’m pretty sure that there is something distinctive about graduates as a whole, but isolating and quantifying the causes is very difficult. I haven’t done multivariate stats yet, but we should put in age, gender, occupation, industry, and course if we could.


  3. “University teaching staff are almost exclusively drawn from this category of education – providing more substantiation for the arguments that academics are more likely to be left wing.”
    It’s not clear to me that most courses have anything to do with politics (excluding some subjects in Arts and social sciences), so, to a large extent, it’s hard to see why this would be a factor in anything. Even in the social sciences, the actual scope for left/right bias is pretty limited in most subjects, and for most people, just teaching the basics is really the first and main objective, not brain-washing people into believing what they do. Given this, I think this issue is really just a media beat-up with little relevance to anything.


  4. Conrad: I once gave a lecture on Deakin on the positive aspects of globalisation because the Pol Sci lecturer could not find a single person willing to do so inside the university. There is plenty of bias in social science and humanities, as was clear when I did some work for disabled students, taking notes in lectures.


  5. While I’m happy to believe that many academics have centre-left views, I’m not convinced it matters much. While marking exams and essays it quickly becomes apparent that students don’t pay much attention to the things academics say anyway. Also consider that many voters remain somewhat conservative despite a university education. James is an excellent example – despite his experiences at Melbourne University he is a clear thinker and somewhat conservative – as are many of his associates.


  6. “There is plenty of bias in social science and humanities, as was clear when I did some work for disabled students, taking notes in lectures”
    I’ve no doubt there’s some bias, but it’s restricted to a very limited number of areas, like politics, which have comparatively small numbers of students. Are they, for example, teaching post-modern biology to students about how they should have their own opinions on vaccinations? I doubt it.
    As it happens, I work with lots of centre-left people, and they’re certainly not giving massivley biased lectures — most of the inherent bias is coming from the text books. I’m also with Sinclair on this in that I doubt the bias really makes much difference, and I’m neither here no there with you on the reason they couldn’t find a lecturer at Deakin — this may simply be a workload issue — i.e. no-one is going to give a lecture without some credit for it, so if you want someone to give an ad-hoc lecture in a subject you are running, you need to go through the bureaucracy, and this may fail. For example, I’d love people to give lectures on all sorts of things in subjects I run, but the reality is I simply can’t get people to give them, even with workload credit.


  7. In the same way that “the same underlying views may lead people to both work in the public sector and support Labor”, it’s possible that the causality runs in a similar way with postgraduate study.

    Particularly with PhDs, the work required and loss of earning capacity while performing postgraduate study tends to make it an economically irrational choice in many cases – I suspect many postgrads are doing it partially out of a sense of altruistic contribution to the state of the art. Such a sensibility is clearly leaning more towards the collectivist than the individualist.


  8. Whether the bias matters so much in the opinions of students is, indeed, a very different matter. The Liberal Club at Melbourne University had record membership under the Howard Government–in contradiction to the normal trend of student politics to flourish in opposition to which ever side is in office federally–apparently because it was a way of rebelling against the academics.
    I am grateful to Andrew for directing my attention to the Scott Steel link, since it provides nice support for my own analysis, set out in my post “I live by manipulating symbols, so I am a politically correct environmentalist”. So I agree that work environment matters more than study as such, though I would point out that being engaged in study probably has some similar effect, though likely a relatively transitory one.


  9. I’ve no doubt there’s some bias, but it’s restricted to a very limited number of areas, like politics, which have comparatively small numbers of students.

    In fact, Politics is the least affected. The worst are the “Studies” – Cultural/Media/Gender – followed by History, Sociology, Law…

    I think you will find these cover a substantial number of students.


  10. Having said that, most of the ideological bias in these areas is of the postmodernist type, not the marxist. I question whether you could find a strong link between the gender/race academic obsessions and the more material concerns which influence our behavior in the more mundane world of electoral politics.

    I doubt very much repeated classes on “how colonialism feminizes the oriental Other” really push people to vote for The Greens. It certainly had the opposite influence on me! 😉


  11. Andrew, I wonder if one explanation of the apparent “academic bias” is that graduates are trained to look more sceptically at the issues.

    Take for example the strong view of right wingers that fiscal austerity is generally desirable
    – even in times of high unemployment,
    – that privatisation is nearly always a big plus for the economy;
    – that regulation is generally bad; and
    – that smaller government is generally a good thing even it means ignoring inferior distribution and environmental concerns.

    Graduates prefer to maintain non-committal on such issues. That makes them less dogmatic, as many of those in the right are.

    And I note too that gender differences are a highly significant factor. The male differences are relatively small.


  12. Fred – I’d have to do some analysis to see if graduates hold views in the direction you suggest that are different to the general population. But I’m afraid the assumption that even graduates have informed or sceptical opinions is likely to be highly optimistic.

    And to the extent they are aware, they would see the highly pragmatic Liberal Party rather than the economic liberal commentariat (though as my survey last year showed, their views are in fact far more diverse than views of social democrats, even if some individuals are ‘dogmatic’).

    My hypothesis would be that cultural issues are more important than economic issues in dividing people into left and right.


  13. Fred

    I would be surprised if more than 10% of graduates could make intelligent comments on the issues you list there, and that the overwhelming majority of that ten percent would be highly sceptical of all government spending.


  14. Indeed polling just released suggests quite the opposite to Fred’s argument.

    ” There is strong support for the broad concept of more regulation, with 64% of voters agreeing there should be more, 20% saying the current level of regulation is about right (4% want less). It’s the partisan split that makes this result interesting?—?Labor and Liberal voters are virtually indistinguishable in their support for more regulation, but its Greens voters who are softest on the idea of more regulation, at 57% compared to 68/67% for Labor and Liberal voters, and much higher support for the idea that the present level of regulation was just right?—?35%?—?who knew Greens voters were such economic rationalists…”



  15. I thought this report was extremely interesting, but isn’t the answer quite obvious?
    Left has always been associated with ideological, utopistic issues. If at a young age you don’t want to save the world, have no wars, and have equality for everyone, what kind of cynical adult are you going to grow into?
    Right wing ideologies thrive on people’s fears: immigrants stealing your jobs, governments taking away what you earned with your hard work……you name it…
    As my parent always used to say: young people are unyielding, old people are intollerant….


  16. Conservatives have always complained that colleges and universities indoctrinate students with leftist views, but it seems to me that most of what could accurately be called indoctrination goes on in elementary and secondary education. Maybe part of the reason that people with lower levels of education tend to be conservative is that that’s what they learned in school but never had the opportunity to unlearn or at least question in college.


  17. I hypothesise that this might be related to income. If as you have mentioned before a high income leads to less concern for material wealth, then this fits with the trend.

    If yo’re a graduate you realise you’re never going to be seriously financially challenged and therefore the labor dominated issues like health and education have more resonance than the liberal dominated issue of running the economy.


  18. Fred: your hypothesis is silly. The politics of academics is well to the “left” of the general populace for two reasons. First, status seeking against “vulgar” commerce, as I discuss here. A social pattern that is very old, in various forms.

    Second, tenure and their social milieu encourages related cultural politics. James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh, which I review here, is very perceptive on the latter.


  19. lomlate

    I think you’ll find that nobody except fire-breathing libertarian types thinks there is anything even remotely left-wing about the ALP, especially its health and education policies.

    In fact, the most fervent ALP supporters are those who are ALP “clients”. That is, precisely those who are reliant on ALP largesse.


  20. A few months ago, I listened to this interesting interview with former ALP senator, John Black, on Counterpoint. Excuse the long extract:

    Paul Comrie-Thomson: Let’s try and construct a profile then of a typical green voter in Australia in 2010.
    John Black: I can’t tell you about 2010 but I can tell you about 2007, and if I can just read down the list…field of study, they’re defined by what they studied, and it was creative arts, your conventional arts degrees, both male and female. And then it gets quite interesting: females in their mid 40s with no kids, female professionals. Religion: other. They’re atheists, agnostics, there’s no religious faith there. And then you’ve got other age groups, female age groups, in their 50s with no kids. And then you’ve got graduates in society and culture type courses. Then you’ve got 40-year-old women with no kids. Then you’ve got male professionals, people who work in arts and recreation. Field of study: architecture and building, that’s another one. Field of study: eduction, industry education. So you’ve got arts type graduates working in education, you’ve got professionals and overwhelmingly you’ve got no kids. And then you get down into the country of birth, green voters are overwhelmingly born in other countries, they’re internationally qualified, people born in the USA or Canada or Singapore, what have you. It would be no surprise to me, sitting in the senate listening to Norm Sanders. Basically they’re an internationally qualified group.
    Paul Comrie-Thomson: John, what you’re talking about then…a lot of our political rhetoric has been about working families, we’ve heard it until we’re all blue in the face. But you’re talking about ‘a large agnostic group of younger professionals’ who are really important.
    John Black: That’s right. Basically when you have a look at the charts, as I did, of women by age, for example, we have a situation where if a woman has two children or three children or more, they simply don’t vote green. They tend to have less disposable income and they tend to vote Labor, until they’re in their 40s and then sort of drift off to the coalition, which is sort of a pattern that’s been going on since about 1900, so that’s pretty much written in stone.
    But if they have no kids, their support for the Greens remains strong right up until their 60s. If they have one, their support for the Greens doesn’t start until their late 30s, but if they’ve had two they’re lost to the Greens. So the Greens are a party of the inner city, of the professionals, of the higher incomes, and that’s all a function of basically no kids. If you have kids, as a female professional you don’t get the job opportunities, you don’t get promoted, that’s the cruel fact of life.


  21. Rajat – It all sounds plausible (except maybe disproportionately foreign born) but I wonder what his data source is.

    One interesting point if all this is right: traditionally we have thought of political views often coming from childhood experience and socialisation. For a largely childless political movement, recruitment will have to follow different paths.


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