“The truth is that when you look at those who voted to remain, most of them were the better educated people in our country”
That’s what the Labour MP for Huddersfield, Barry Sheerman, told a BBC interviewer this week, prompting an angry response from some leave supporters on social media.
FactCheck looks at whether he’s right.
What were the main features of remain and leave voters?
In its analysis immediately after the referendum result, pollsters YouGov said: “The most dramatic split [between voters] is along the lines of education.
“70 per cent of voters whose educational attainment is only GCSE or lower voted to Leave, while 68 per cent of voters with a university degree voted to Remain in the EU. Those with A levels and no degree were evenly split”.
But they also cited age as “the other great fault line” – with people aged under 25 more than twice as likely to vote remain than leave (71 per cent versus 29 per cent). The reverse is true among older people, with 64 per cent of over-65s voting to leave.
Overall, YouGov concluded that “older people with fewer formal qualifications were most likely to have voted Leave”.
But is it really education that makes the difference between remainers and leavers?
Some commentators have questioned whether the relationship between education and voting to remain is as clear as it first appears.
The number of people in higher education has gone up significantly in recent decades, as this graph from the House of Commons Library shows.
According to research by the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, participation in higher education increased from 3.4 per cent in 1950, to 8.4 per cent in 1970, to 19.3 per cent in 2000.
This means that today’s over-65s are much less likely to have a degree than today’s under-25s.
Education was a bigger factor than age in determining how people voted
So when we say that graduates are more likely to vote remain, are we actually saying that younger people are more likely to vote remain?
No, says Paula Surridge, senior lecturer in the department of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.
She told FactCheck: “There is strong evidence that education levels are connected with referendum voting, with those with degree level qualifications being much more pro-remain.”
But she was clear that “this is not explained by age – the education effect is stronger”. She says that “even within generations, the more highly qualified you are, the more likely you are to support remain”.
She pointed us to this data, which shows that people with lower levels of education were more likely to vote to leave the EU than people of the same age with higher levels of education.
Barry Sheerman is right: better educated people are more likely to have voted remain in last year’s EU referendum.
It is true that age also played a part, with older people more likely to vote to leave and younger people more likely to vote to remain.
However, analysis of voting behaviour shows that education was a more significant factor. Even among people of the same age, those with more qualifications were much more likely to vote to remain than those with few qualifications or none.