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Education • Economics • Austerity

How popular is education really?

Marius R Busemeyer - 03 June 2015

Why is it apparently so difficult for governments to increase spending on education? The answer may lie in findings from a new survey of public opinion in western European countries

When it comes to election pledges, few policy proposals are as popular as increasing public investments on education. In times of economic and fiscal crises as well as rising inequality, broadening access to education is often regarded as a panacea, since a more egalitarian distribution of skills in the population is expected to lower levels of wage inequality in the long run.

International comparative studies of educational attainment such as PISA and, more recently, PIAAC (measuring adults’ competencies) usually display significant cross-national differences, both in the level and distribution of skills. Thus, in many European countries, including the UK, promoting educational expansion and the social investment model of the welfare state would require a significant amount of additional public investments in human capital formation.

Judging from the most recent figures provided by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (Education at a Glance, 2014 edition), progress on this front is limited, however. Admittedly, the average of total (public and private) spending on education increased from 5.4 per cent of GDP in 2000 to 6.1 per cent in 2011, but this masks the fact that in some countries, spending actually declined (eg in France from 6.4 per cent (2000) to 6.1 per cent of GDP in 2011). The UK is partly an exception here, since total spending increased strongly from 4.9 per cent in 2000 to 6.4 per cent of GDP in 2011, but a large part of this is driven by increases in private spending on education, ie tuition fees.

Given this mixed performance, why is it apparently so difficult to effectively increase spending on education, even though everybody loves it? One potential explanation is that policymakers are constrained by the forces of austerity, European integration and globalisation and are therefore unable to expand public spending in general. A second explanation, which I want to discuss here, could be that education is in fact less popular than one might assume. From this perspective, it could be argued that on a general level, voters are very supportive of education spending, but when they are forced to make difficult choices, their support is less robust as it might seem.

There are a number of existing surveys on public opinion on education policies such as the European Social Survey or the International Social Survey Programme, but these surveys have many limitations. For one, they do not force voters to make hard choices, essentially allowing them to express support for spending increases without having to worry about how this would be financed. This is why we conducted our own representative survey of public opinion on education and other social policies in eight European countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Sweden).

In this survey, we asked respondents, whether (or how strongly) they supported an increase in government spending on education. In contrast to existing surveys, however, we tested public support for education spending changes once respondents are made aware of different kinds of constraints. To this effect, respondents are randomly assigned to four different groups. In the first group, the question is asked with no strings attached. In the remaining groups, we confront respondents with different trade-offs: higher taxes in the second group, cutbacks in other parts of the welfare state (such as pensions) in the third, and increases in levels of public debt in the last one. Figure 1 presents the striking findings of this exercise.

Figure 1: Percentage of respondents supporting much more or more government spending on education across different groups.

Figure 1 shows that when respondents are not confronted with any kind of fiscal trade-off, a large majority of more than 73 per cent of respondents across all the eight countries in the sample support more or even much more government spending on education. When reminded that this would require higher taxes or higher levels of public debt, support for education spending drops precipitously to 54 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively. This effect is even stronger when additional spending on education would have to be financed with cutbacks in other parts of the welfare state. In this case, the formerly huge majority in favour of spending increases shrinks to a minority of just 27 per cent supporting more government spending on education.

In another question, we again forced respondents to make a choice: if the government could increase spending on one area of activity only, which one would it be? Respondents were given a number of policy fields to choose from, including both social policies such as social assistance, old age pensions and labour market policies as well as non-social policies such as defence and the environment.

The findings – presented in Figure 2 – are encouraging for those promoting a policy agenda based on educational expansion. If forced to choose, European voters would indeed opt for focusing additional government spending on education rather than other policy fields. This is supported by a relative majority of 27 per cent. The second most popular policy field is health care (22 per cent supporting this). What is also interesting is that support for increasing spending on more traditional welfare state programmes (unemployment, social assistance and old age pensions) is rather low. Less surprising is the fact that focusing additional spending on defence is least popular of all (only two per cent of respondents support this).

Figure 2: Importance of education relative to other social policies: On which policy field should government increase spending if forced to choose?

What are the implications of our findings for policymakers? On the one hand, the results are encouraging. Increasing public investment on education is indeed extremely popular among voters. Even when forced to choose between education and other social policies, a relative majority supports to focus on education. Apparently, this is an area of government activity, where the population perceives a general need for more public investment. On the other hand, our findings also suggest that increasing public spending on education is politically difficult in an era of fiscal austerity. Voters would like more spending, but they do not like to pay higher taxes or accept higher levels of debt, and they strongly dislike the redistribution of funds from one part of the welfare state to another. Actually, the latter fact could also be interpreted as good news for left-wing policymakers: if forced to choose, voters rather seem willing to accept higher taxes than cutbacks in existing welfare state programmes. Hence, in the long term, and if policymakers can deliver public services such as education on a high level of quality, voters are in fact willing to contribute.

Marius R Busemeyer is professor of political science at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Konstanz

The survey described in this article was financed with a ‘starting grant’ from the European Research Council (ERC), Grant No. 311769. More technical details on the survey can be found

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