By the higher educated people, for the higher educated people

by Alexander Beunder. 

It’s true that Dutch politics are dominated by the higher educated, as professor Mark Bovens (Utrecht University, School of Governance) demonstrates in his book Diploma Democracy (2009). It’s also true that in the Netherlands, the average income of the higher educated is twice as high as the income of the lower educated, a wage gap which should not be applauded but eliminated. We should question how, without drawing hasty conclusions.

Let’s first look at the income differences between the higher and lower educated (while denying this education level corresponds to differences in ‘intelligence’, whatever that may be). Higher educated are people who graduated from university or vocational (HBO) studies. Does this legitimize differences in salaries? Probably not, but the gap exists. It’s commonly referred to as the ‘college wage gap’. It exists in probably every country and also in the Netherlands. Averages show that the higher educated you are, the more you earn (without denying there are poor higher educated and rich lower educated). In the Netherlands the higher educated (a third of the labour force) earn almost twice as much as the lower educated – 49 versus 26 thousand euros a year, says the CBS.

Many would say the lower educated are simply less productive and therefore paid less. But as productivity is commonly measured in money, the higher wages of the higher educated would by definition lead you to this conclusion. Many others would say that richer people have more purchasing power to buy education, which means education is a consequence of wealth, not a cause of it. This seems to make more sense. Others, like economist Dean Baker, emphasize that the higher educated are better at protecting their economic interests at the political level. So the wealthier you are, the more educated, and the more educated, the more capable to protect your wealth?

There’s definitely reason to believe the higher educated have more control over politics. Professor Mark Bovens found a significant correlation between political participation and level of education in the Netherlands: “The modern democracy is a diploma democracy. Citizens have significantly more political influence when their educational level is higher. The higher educated have always been more politically active than the lower educated, but in the past decades this difference has increased strongly”, he says. Political parties, political interest group, NGO’s and even political activism are all dominated by the higher educated, while interest groups that traditionally represent the interests of the lower educated (like trade unions) are losing ground. That’s a problem, Bovens says, as the interests of the lower educated become neglected and overshadowed.

To be more concrete: where do differences of interests appear and where are they ‘won’ by the higher educated? Europeanization – globalization on a European scale –  is perhaps one example. Differences of opinion about the EU are highly related to educational levels, according to a recent poll of Maurice de Hond (November, 2011). Never before did De Hond find a clearer correlation of political opinion and educational level. The lower educated tend to vote for the ‘eurosceptic’ (though way too simplistic of a term) Socialist Party (SP) and the Freedom Party (PVV), they tend to miss the Dutch guilder currency and regret the introduction of the euro. The higher educated tend to support European integration and the eurozone more.

It’s easy to dismiss rising euroscepticism as irrational nationalism of the unintelligent classes of society, but we have to recognize that ‘the EU’ affects different people differently. While European leaders are liberalising the European market claiming we will all win, many economists have been explaining for decades (centuries even) how “there are always winners and losers from any change in trade policy.” There are several economic theories available to explain why the lower skilled labour in developed countries are among the ‘losers’ from trade liberalisation.

The main explanation is simple: European trade liberalisation (at least the way it’s taking place nowadays) is not increasing market competition among the highly educated, as much as the competition among the lower educated in developed countries like the Netherlands. As a result, incomes of the higher educated are not under as much of pressure as those of the lower educated. Many factors are involved: in a unified, liberalized European economy, industry using low-skilled labourers is moving to countries where their wages are lower, technological progress reduces demand for low-skilled labour and migration flows increase the competition in the low-skilled labour market. At the same time, many higher educated see their market opportunities increase. The Dutch Central Bank (DNB) recognized these factors in one of it’s publications (2008) and predicted increasing income inequality in the future due to these factors.

But it’s not all forced by natural workings of the market, Baker would tell you. In the US, rich, higher educated people use the state frequently to protect their position in the so-called free market. The higher educated bankers make sure governments bail them out when they face bankruptcy, doctors and lawyers use government regulation to limit competition in their sector, and the pharmaceutical industry makes sure patent law protects their monopoly positions. Most of the beneficiaries in these cases are higher educated, Baker claims.

Now comes the tricky part: what can we conclude from this? Are higher educated people greedy? Most of them have limited influence on their own salaries. Does this mean we can support increases in college fees for public universities from a leftist perspective, because it would force the future wealthy to increase their contribution to public services? No, because this would exclude the lower income classes of society from public higher education even more than they are already today. These are all too hasty conclusions.

Should we then adopt the most commonly heard slogan from progressive student movements all over the world, ‘free higher education for all’? Definitely, but without illusions that this would solve the college wage gap. It’s impossible to make everyone equally rich by providing everyone with an equal level of higher education because “only a minority of jobs require a college degree”, Stuart Tannock explains. Of course, everyone should have access to higher education independent of their socio-economical background, which means it should be free. This is even recognized by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But universal access to higher education will not solve the college wage gap.

To eliminate the wage gap, we need much more imagination, says Stuart Tannock in “Higher Education, Inequality and the Public Good (2006)”, referring to the even larger college wage gap in the US. Most importantly, we should start with one important question:

What if we were to view the growing wage gap not as a sign of success in higher education but of failure? […] We could begin to shift our politics away from the errant task of trying to get everyone into college, toward the more genuinely democratic task of building solidarity and equality among all individuals, irrespective of educational or occupational status.”