Global Education & Skills Forum Blog

Is the rise of populism the result of a failure of education?

Following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as US president, a populist reaction against globalisation has appeared to be gaining ground in many nations.

Initial research has shown a strong correlation between education levels and votes for Brexit and Trump, with both more popular among the less educated.

However, correlation does not equal causation, and there are many other compelling reasons why people choose to vote against globalisation besides education.

So is the rise of populism the result of a failure of education?

These were the arguments made during this Debate Chamber at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017:

For: The rise of populism is the result of a failure of education

  1. There are clears links between education levels and populist votes

The support base of the two biggest recent populist shocks – the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union – reflected a strong correlation with levels of education.

This fact was highlighted by Camfed CEO Lucy Lake in the debate chamber, who began her speech in support of the motion by quoting Donald Trump, who after winning a vote for the Republican presidential nomination said: “I love the poorly educated.”

“Trump saw a connection between being poorly educated and a rise in populism,” said Lake.

“It’s a fact that there is a link between levels of education and people who voted for Brexit and Trump, but is there a causal link?”

In answering her own question, Lake spoke about her charity’s work educating young women in Africa, saying that there was a very clear link between education levels and how people view the world.

“A failure in education leads to a sense of disenfranchisement, while at its best education brings a sense of empowerment,” she said.

  1. Education can be a powerful weapon against populism

The power of education to battle populism is another indicator of the key role that it plays in shaping political opinions, according to Lake and her co-supporter of the motion, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.

“Populists know what education can mean for them, so populist politicians are not investing in education systems,” she said.

“Populist leaders like to have ignorant people.”

Bokova added that education offers a way of ensuring young people are more globally-minded and inclusive in their outlook:

Against: The rise of populism is not the result of a failure of education

  1. Education shouldn’t be scapegoated

Former Greek prime minister George Papandreou spoke in the debate saying that focusing on the correlation between education levels and populism risks turning education into a scapegoat:

Speaking alongside Papandreou, Rebecca Winthrop, director of Brookings Center for Universal Education, said she was “sick of educators being scapegoated for problems made by other people, and it’s not fair”.

“I acknowledge that education has a role to play, but it’s not a panacea for all the world’s problems,” said Winthrop.

“We should stop scapegoating and thinking education can do everything.”

  1. Focusing on education avoids talking about the real causes of populism

Instead of focusing on education, said Papandreou and Winthrop, populism must be tackled by addressing problems such as economic injustice, rapid technological change and mass immigration.

“In many countries there is a broken down social contract and broken down trust in our institutions,” said Papandreou.

“We also have a technological revolution that gives great opportunities but also threatens our societies: there are robots taking jobs, leading to a deep sense of insecurity. There will be people left on the street unemployed. Let’s not blame education for the phenomena we need to deal with in our societies.”

Winthrop agreed, saying that due to inequality and technological changes there were “real losers to globalisation, and that’s not the fault of schools around the world.”

Which side won?

The audience was polled at the beginning and end of the Debate Chamber on its attitude towards the rise of populism.

In the initial poll, 57% of the audience were for the motion that the rise in populism is the result of a failure in education, 28% were against, and 15% were undecided.

Those speaking against the motion emerged clear winners, as when the second poll was taken at the end of the debate, 44% were For, 51% Against, and 5% undecided.

If you missed out on the chance to cast your vote, just go to the GESF app and choose “Voting”.

You can watch this Debate Chamber in full:

Is the rise of populism is the result of the failure of education from Global Education & Skills Forum on Vimeo.

The Global Education and Skills Forum took place on 18th and 19th March 2017 in Dubai, UAE, with the theme of “How do we make ‘real’ global citizens?”