The rise of populism is a failure of education – yes or no?

27 févr. 2017 |

Welcome to the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 Debate Chamber. This debate will see both sides argue over whether the strong correlation between populism and low education levels is sufficient to explain its rise.  But what case might each side make at Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai?

On the face of it, there is certainly a strong link between education and populism.

The support base of the two biggest recent populist shocks – the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union – reflected a strong correlation with levels of education.

Many working in the industry would dispute that this necessarily means education (or lack of it) is responsible for these phenomena. At the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 we will see two sides commit to proving their points. Here’s how they might go about mounting their cases.

Yes: Low education levels lead to populism

  1. There was a strong correlation between education levels and votes for Donald Trump.

The higher the percentage of people in a US county whose highest level of education was high school, the greater the swing towards Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, relative to Republican support in 2012.

As the Financial Times points out, even when a host of other factors are taken into account such as income levels, income growth, unemployment, race, age and immigration, none was as good a match for the shift to Trump as education.

This is according to a comprehensive study by the Resolution Foundation which explores the relationships between economic and demographic data and the flood of support for the Republican candidate.


  1. There was a strong correlation between education levels and votes for Brexit.

A Financial Times analysis of those who voted Leave in June 2016’s Brexit referendum revealed that in UK local authority areas, the lower the share of people with a degree, the higher its share of the vote to Leave the EU.


No: Populism’s rise cannot be explained solely by low education levels

  1. It is too complex to reduce to one issue

There is no shortage of other possible factors to blame. The media, the internet, the failure of the left in politics, the financial crisis: take your pick. Correlation does not imply causation, so reducing populism to its strong correlation with low education levels is likely to be misguided. There are too many factors to reduce it to one issue.

  1. The correlation of low education with populism is actually an indicator of other factors

The ‘openness score’ is a measure of certain personality traits. Those who score highly are more open to new experiences. Those who score low, tend to be conventional and traditional in their outlook and behaviour.

It seems there is a strong correlation between openness and going to college as well as a strong correlation towards openness and less populist views.

Put another way, it may be that those who decide to go to university are less likely to have populist views, even before they go on to receive that extra education. So, education levels may just be a marker for pre-existing openness, and low education levels may simply indicate a more traditional or “closed” mindset.

  1. It’s about the type of education, not the level.

Another theory says that it is not the levels of education someone receives which will shape their populist views, but the type of education.

Contemporary education, this argument goes, puts emphasis on passing tests and a student’s employment prospects instead of teaching critical thinking and analytical skills.

If we are not taught to question what we hear, perhaps populism becomes more attractive.

So the answer is…

Of course, education certainly has a role to play in political engagement and critical thinking. Educators have a responsibility to continually assess whether that is being done properly.

But the rise in populism is complex and education is unlikely to be the sole cause or the sole ‘solution’.

Which side will prevail? Find out by attending the Debate Chamber at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2017, taking place in Dubai on 18th and 19th March. Find out more here.