As I was preparing to launch Communicating Economics, a colleague pointed me to this article on the BBC website:
‘The educational attainment of voters’ – why not just the education of voters? The article goes on to say that ‘Wards where the population had fewer qualifications tended to have a higher Leave vote… If the proportion of the local electorate with a degree or similar qualification was one percentage point lower, then on average the Leave vote was higher by nearly one percentage point.’
So the data are clearly referring to those with more education, but the article decides to tone down this clear finding with the euphemism: ‘educational attainment’. Why not simply say: ‘Wards with a less educated population tended to have a higher Leave vote…’ This may sound uncomfortable but isn’t it more to the point? Isn’t that the point that we have to face up to if we are to learn from the Leave vote?
This article is by no means an isolated example. Where does the euphemism ‘educational attainment’ come from? Is it because we want to avoid the idea that more education is somehow better? Does it want to avoid the awkward class connotations of having a degree? Of course it is possible that someone can be well educated but not highly educated – George Orwell never went to university. But come on… does this help us? Thankfully there is no such euphemism when we refer to unskilled or skilled jobs – so why the squeamishness here?
My reaction is that the grand euphemism ‘educational attainment’ has clouded what is a clear and useful finding. Less educated people – those with fewer skills and more likely to do unskilled jobs – were more likely to vote Leave. These are just the sort of unskilled jobs where wages are lower and have been getting lower, for a number of reasons including competition from trade and technology.
This may be oversimplifying but at least if we can have a debate on those terms perhaps we will be more likely to do something about it.