Much attention has been paid by academics and policy-makers in recent decades to declining levels of voter turnout and engagement with traditional political and social institutions in established democracies. These trends are particularly marked amongst young people. Drawing on data from the European Social Survey, this article examines the role of higher education (HE) both as a source of unequal participation and as a means of fostering civic and political engagement amongst young Europeans. It uncovers two significant new findings. First, that being in education matters more than an individual’s level of educational attainment for levels of civic and political participation, and second, that HE establishments play a key role as social levellers: being in education neutralises differences between young people from high-income and low-income backgrounds with regards to such participation. The article argues that this places added emphasis on the role of educational institutions in nurturing democratic engagement.
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Sander and Putnam (2010) record the doubling of civic engagement amongst college students in the US between 2001 and 2010, but also a growing participation gap between college students and young people who do not go on to university.
The ‘EU15′ countries are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and (until it left at 11 pm GMT on 31 January 2020) the UK.
The ‘High Education’ group includes those holding qualifications that are at least the minimum level necessary to gain admission to university-level study in each country (upper tier upper secondary and above). The Low Education group includes all others who did not achieve this level of educational attainment.
This variable is a composite of the highest qualification achieved variable and the main activity variable, and includes categories of 18–24-year-olds who have experience of higher education (HE) and those who do not. The first group includes those who are either currently enrolled in HE or who have previously completed HE studies, while the second group includes young Europeans who have completed their secondary education but did not then continue into HE.
‘Low-income’ refers to the bottom quartile (the bottom three categories on a 12-point scale) of income in each country. ‘High-income’ refers to the top quartile (on the same scale) of income in each country. Focussing our analyses only on these particular highest and lowest income groups leads to low N for some sub-samples in the tables and in the analyses.
At the time of examining the data, only waves 1–8 were available for cumulative analysis.
Mean scores rather than percentages are reported for these four “political engagement” variables. Social trust and political trust are both 11 item variables, while there are four categories for political interest and five for political understanding (personal efficacy). See footnote 10 for coding details.
However, numbers are very small, so caution should be exercised when interpreting the figures on party activism, given the rarity of this form of political participation across the EU15.
The nature of the ESS data is not conducive to facilitating direct comparisons across the two regression analyses reported in Tables 3 and 4. The analyses therefore represent the predictive relationships between the variables for each individual group. The comparisons of the relationships between these groups therefore only provide indirect differences between them.
The coding for these variables is as follows: Income = 1 Low Income, 2 High Income; Educational attainment = 1 Low Education, 2 High Education; Gender = 1 Male, 2 Female; Ethnicity = 1 Minority ethnic group, 2 Majority ethnic group; Voted [in the] last national election = 1 Yes, 2 No; Worked in a political party or action group = 1 Yes, 2 No; Worked in another organisation or association (for a political cause) = 1 Yes, 2 No; Contacted a politician or government official = 1 Yes, 2 No; Signed a petition = 1 Yes, 2 No; Taken part in a lawful public demonstration = 1 Yes, 2 No; Boycotted certain products = 1 Yes, 2 No; Trust (social) = 0 Cannot be trusted to 10 Can be trusted; Trust (politicians) = 0 Cannot be trusted to 10 Can be trusted; Political interest = 1 Not at all interested to 4 Very interested; Political understanding/ Personal efficacy (Politics is too complicated to understand) = 1 Frequently to 5 Never.
One could make the point that college students—unlike those young people with secondary qualifications who are not in education—are different in that they are clearly on the pathway to higher educational attainment, and thus are more motivated, efficacious individuals. This may well be true but is unlikely to account for such a large gap between young people from poorer backgrounds inside and outside HE (as our analysis demonstrates).
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Sloam, J., Kisby, B., Henn, M. et al. Voice, equality and education: the role of higher education in defining the political participation of young Europeans. Comp Eur Polit 19, 296–322 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-020-00228-z
- Young people
- Higher education
- Democratic engagement
- Civic participation
- Political participation