The more highly educated you are, the more you are likely to have voted for remain rather than leave, in the EU referrendum. Why is this the case?

From YouGov:

70% of voters whose educational attainment is only GCSE or lower voted to Leave, while 68% of voters with a university degree voted to Remain in the EU. Those with A levels and no degree were evenly split, 50% to 50%

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    – Joe C
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:36
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    @JoeC: it's entirely possible for people to be polled for their reasons to vote remain for example, and that such a poll be broken down by education. Sure that doesn't give a perfect answer, but it would be informative enough. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:38
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    People who answer polls: those with an ax to grind and those with too much time Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:46
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    @origimbo if the same polls ask about age and education then we might be able to answer that too.
    – JJJ
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 13:13
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    I fail to realize why this question was put on hold. We already have many similar questions. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/507/…. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/16485/…
    – jean
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 14:15

5 Answers 5


Probably, at least in part, because people who voted leave are also more afraid of immigrants taking their low-skilled jobs.

A larger flow of migrants from Eastern Europe reaching a local authority area with a larger share of unqualified people or a larger share of manufacturing workers is associated with a larger Vote Leave share, whereas the opposite is true when a large flow of migrants from Eastern Europe reaches an area with a large share of those working in finance, or an area with higher median hourly pay.

[from https://academic.oup.com/economicpolicy/article/32/92/601/4459491]

Among the alternative interpretations given to this fact (by some comments on that paper) is that direct messaging and/or the tabloid press may be responsible for these differences, because the low-education segment prefers to read that kind of press and/or was more susceptible to direct misinformation via Leave campaign adds (including about the effects of immigration). But there's no data in the paper itself to directly support this alternative interpretation. (There might be some elsewhere; the panel discussion ended with some calls for more direct research on the differential effects of misinformation on the low-education vs high-education voters.)

I'll try to find something split by education (and more recent), but in the UK in general the opinion that immigrants "take" the natives' jobs was higher than in some other large EU countries, at least in 2011:

enter image description here

The press and politicians that ultimately backed Brexit were clearly spreading/supprting these ideas long before, e.g. 2011-era news:

Migrants 'take the jobs from young Britons'

Mass immigration poses the biggest threat to the Coalition’s attempts to get millions of people off benefits as foreign workers take low-paid jobs, Iain Duncan Smith [the Work and Pensions Secretary] will warn today.

(Some years later Iain Duncan Smith argued for Brexit.) Whether their message got across because the low-educated are more gullible or just because the message was correct and the low-educated really had something to fear is something surely interesting in itself, but I think there's little doubt that the message resonated with some low-education voters who were described as the main victim of immigration.

And interesting aspect is that the difference of opinions on immigration in the UK is larger by education (of the respondent) than it is by age (of the respondent) :

enter image description here

I think this mostly rules out that education is simply a proxy for age when it comes to views on immigration (despite the fact that younger cohorts are more educated.)

The same is true for the actual vote to leave, i.e. age does not "explain out" the effect of education:

To examine whether or not this is the case in Table 4 we show the level of support for Remain broken down by age and highest educational qualification combined. From this it is clear that, of the two, it is educational background that is by far the more important. Within each age group, there is a big difference between graduates and those whose highest qualification is a GCSE or less in the level of support registered for staying in the EU. In the case of those aged between 35 and 54, for example, as many as 81% of graduates voted to remain, compared with just 37% of those whose highest qualification is a GCSE or less; a difference of 44 points. In contrast, older graduates were only 10 points less likely than younger ones to vote for Remain, while the age gap among those with a GCSE or less is only 7 points. Only among those whose highest qualification is less than a degree but more than a GCSE is there a substantial age difference. Even so, at 30 points, it is less than the gap within all of our age groups between graduates and those with a GCSE or less.

enter image description here

They come to same conclusion using regarding social class not being able to just explain away education here. (Quotes and figures on that omitted by me here; see table 3 in paper.)

The degree of shift in Leave opinion stratified by education is also interesting in the year before the referendum, with a large boost in the least educated segment. Also, people who held libertarian (including pro-immigration) views were least influenced by the Leave campaign.

enter image description here

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    @JackAidley: what you've quoted was someone else's comment on the paper, not the original authors' view. (Replies/comments on the paper are on the same web page.) I agree that correlation is not always causation though. You have also selectively quoted what that comment says. "Education (or the lack of it) could matter more for two broad reasons. First, people with low or no qualifications may be harder hit by immigration, globalization, and austerity measures." (continues) Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 9:15
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    "Part of education’s strong explanatory power may thus be due to other economic factors left in the error term when considering demographic and education characteristics alone. Second, people with low or no qualifications may be exactly the demographic that is more easily swayed by the misinformation and unrealistic promises of the Leave campaign. Education may thus be proxying for the role of the anti-EU propaganda that dominated the tabloid press at the run-up to the election." Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 9:17
  • @JackAidley: hoewer, the problem with Ioanniodou's alternative interpretation is that it's not directly based on any data from the paper itself. In the panel discussion it was latter said that "Following one of the comments by Vasso Ioannidou during her discussion, Ugo Panizza argued that it would be useful to analyse in more detail the sub-sets of the population that were more susceptible to false claims during the campaign." Absent these, it's even harder to simply accept Ioanniodou's alternative interpretation than the original one. Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 9:23
  • "In response to comments and questions, Dennis Novy [...] recognized that the results on migration should be discussed more carefully." Frankly, whether the pattern of immigration directly affected low-education education voters or was strongly mediated by the (tabloid) press is interesting, but does not change the bare fact that low-income voters apparently reacted differently to immigration in their area (compared to the reaction of high-education voters). Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 9:25
  • @Fizz: yeah, I didn't quote the whole thing because there's a sharp limit on characters in comments. People can read it at the link Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 10:21

Remember that correlation doesn’t mean causation. In other words, the tendency to vote Remain may not be a result of being educated. It is very possible that another factor causes education and the Remain vote to move together.

Here is an example of what such other factor could look like. Educated people typically find jobs in corporations and live in cities. In such places, they are bound to come in contact with people from other countries. Thus, for many educated people, living together with immigrants may be a natural way of life, which leads to the tendency to vote Remain.

On the other hand, smaller towns and villages may be populated by people who didn’t have the chance to pursue higher education. At the same time, since immigrants tend to be in cities for employment reasons, people in smaller towns and villages do not form the same attitude towards immigrants (fear of the unknown?) as those in cities. Hence, the tendency to vote Leave.

Assuming the above reasoning is correct, being educated has no bearing on the Remain/Leave vote. Rather, the fact that educated people have more opportunities to get in contact with immigrants would cause them to vote Remain.

  • your first paragraphs argue against causation, but the last one endorses a causal relationship.
    – dandavis
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 21:20
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    @dandavis It says "assuming the above...is correct", which is not endorsing a causal relationship, it's proposing a hypothetical for purposes of demonstration. And in fact this is an appropriate argument to make, as single statistics void of analysis and context are misleading at best. People all too easily make inferences and draw conclusions that are not actually supported by the data and science, or may even be contradicted by it. Which is exactly why you see people throwing them out left and right when debating whatever the politically contentious topic of the day is. Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 23:50
  • @zibadawatimmy: it literally says "would cause them"; that's causal. My problem is more that it claims "being educated has no bearing", but then says educated people's education (and it's associated experiences/opportunities) cause a Remain vote. Citing Remain-slanted data from people with "opportunities to get in contact with immigrants" w/o education, ex: people in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, would support the claim, but I don't see anything like that here.
    – dandavis
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 7:03
  • Many working class people are in contact with immigrants (even married to them), and many immigrants are (working class, and) comfortable aligning against the EU and with, for example, the Commonwealth. There is an odd assumption by left-leaning diversity daleks that buy-in to the remain agenda corrolates with buy-in to the diversity agenda, which tends to be overtly supported by remainers. Forgetting that many immigrants are older immigrants, and buy into the Commonwealth agenda and not the EU one. This is true for some Asians, Africans, and Caribbeans, for whom, the EU is less relevant. Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 13:17

Multiple factors:

1) Already mentioned in multiple answers - lower educated people face much higher competition against low skill migrants on labour market, thus their rational self interests looks a bit different. Moreover they live in worse neighbourhoods and compete for public services. enter image description here 2) More nuanced relations between education and age In the question everything boils down to education. Well, there is the problem, that similar pattern is visible for age too. It makes even more sense, as for older people the default state is the UK being a proud global power, while for younger people the default state is the UK being an EU member. Careful, age and education are highly correlated:

enter image description here

Nevertheless, age and education are independent factors, at least for older generations:

enter image description here

It would be nice to go on line: smarter people see serious stumbling blocs in the whole project - Irish border has to be kept open to maintain Good Friday Agreement and be kept closed, to maintain regulations of World Trade Organisations. Even people who personally detest the EU, may under such circumstances still prefer remain. However there is one big caveat, when using education as proxy of intelligence when comparing different generations. There used to be nice Flynn effect - thanks more schooling and better nutrition people were scoring so well on IQ tests, that next generations regularly needed harder question. Nevertheless, in recent years this effect stopped or even started to reverse, so if we brutally look at the data - new generations seem to no longer get smarter in any measurable way, but merely spend more time in schools.

As extra problem there is issue of cosmopolitan cities. And paradoxically, I'd consider this as good hint: except some clear economic issues (migrants, free trade) people vote to big extend based on their feelings and opinion of their surroundings. Thus people with different surroundings would lean towards particular views, which among their friends seem as good.


It all boils down to those who are more willing/able to adapt to social and economic changes versus those who are less willing/able to do so.

Old, less-educated, rural, settled-with-a-family manufacturing workers have the worst prospects in an economy that includes many Eastern European countries willing to do that kind of labor for less money, and they're also the least likely to submit to additional education, moving location, and tolerate other cultures than their own.

People with greater social and economic flexibility such as the young, unmarried, urban, cosmopolitan, well-educated workers are both less likely to be negatively impacted by cheap labor in other EU countries, and are more able to adapt to any issues they come across.

So it's a double-whammy against those with less education. They are more affected by cheap manufacturing elsewhere than higher-educated people, and are less likely to seek out new careers/new places in order to overcome those obstacles.

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    Some argue that it's do with values link. It's worth noting that many younger east europeans do not share the same world view as young urban middle class British people. The young are not a monolith with a homogenous view. Those who grow up in deprived ethnically English areas will tend to express divergent views and modes of expression from those in urban areas. Education is also bifurcated between academic and vocation trajectories, which also results in living amongst divergent world views. Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 4:12

The question appears to be a form of "Remainers are clever and Leavers are stupid".

It's a particularly questionable & divisive narrative pushed by remainers (reminscent of 19th century pseudoscience about ethnicity and intelligence), it belies the core problem with the EU. link. People in poorer areas tended to vote leave, and also tend to vote Labour, and also tend to be ethnically autochthonous. For the EU to be considered by them to be attractive, it would have to provide them with increased prosperity & opportunity, when in fact it has brought increased competition, and higher cost of living, whilst benefiting middle classes, who tend to support remain.

Prior to eastern european accession there was lower unemployment for young people starting their careers, because there was lower competition for low skilled jobs. The inferred argument that people vote leave because they are stupid, and people that vote remain are clever, conceals the economic reality that people born into middle class families are born with a headstart when it comes to accessing higher education, partly because of having more money, and partly because their parents are usually more educated and aware of the system. Further, higher education is censorious towards leavers.

...the preponderance of wealthy left-liberal people (i.e.: "toffs") in universities is much higher than not, and there is an element of self-selection and of exclusion of those with different world views. It is risky for your career in academia to overtly support leave or UKIP, and I have witnessed that first-hand. It is a domain of political groupthink, that has an political and economic voice louder than it's numbers. The poor, i.e.: "the stupid" (because, obviously only stupid people choose to be poor), are excluded to ensure that the narrative that leavers are stupid remains unchallenged.

Some argue that the result is more to do with a revolt by the "squeezed middle" link, than the uneducated working class; some argue that it's more to do with values than economics link

There are some detailed analyses of data on this question that concludes:

higher SES predicts a greater likelihood of voting leave.

To be honest, I’m not sure these results are what I expected to see. I think it’s worth reiterating the caveat above about the ecological fallacy. We do not know whether individuals of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to vote leave after adjusting for education. All we can say is that electoral wards with a higher proportion of people of high SES are more likely to vote leave after adjusting for the proportion of people in that ward with degree level education. link

(SES = Socio-Economic Status, high SES means more white-collar, urban careers). link.




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    It would be nice to know why people are voting me down, when I provide some good quality links and also present information that contradicts my own position. It't not about hurting people's feelings, if my direct experience is to be spat on as if it's made up, then this is excluding a voice, which is kind of my point. I recently saw a webpage that presented a series of graphs that showed how votes per constituency were heavily weighted towards the poor and WWC voting for Leave, and rich voting for remain. I have tried to find it again, but no luck yet. Statsguy presents the same data I found. Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 13:07
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    "Remainers are clever and Leavers are stupid" - I never said that. The question is about education, not intelligence. And there is objective evidence of a correlation between education level and Brexit beliefs.
    – Paul
    Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 15:52
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    I know that you never said that, but it is the inference of the idea - I do not know whether you are a leaver asking the question or a remainer asking the question, so it's not a personal dig either. It is reasonable to regard the inference about education to be about intelligence, and it's worthwhile putting it out there that education has a lot to do with wealth and family background. I have actually answered the question, there are some good links, and the analysis from statsguy.co.uk/brexit-voting-and-education is probably the sort of thing you're looking for, not my opinion. Commented Oct 22, 2019 at 2:00
  • @RinkyStingpiece You wrote a really good answer. It is stupid how they all down voted you. Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 15:08

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