How does public opinion impact education policy?

It is a widespread belief that political decisions are usually influenced by public opinion. Even if the next election still is a long way off, political decision-makers seem to react sensitively to the slightest changes in public sentiment. On the other hand, politicians are often accused of basing their decisions too much on the interests of influential associations and lobby groups, or that they focus their actions too much on party politics instead of the common good.

How strong is the influence of public opinion compared to that of interest groups and party politics? When do politicians obey the “voice of the people”, when do interest groups have more influence, and when do party politics decide? A new book now provides answers to these questions: “A Loud but Noisy Signal. Public Opinion and Education Reform in Western Europe”, published by Cambridge University Press and written by three authors: Marius R. Busemeyer, Speaker of the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz, Julian L. Garritzmann of the Goethe University Frankfurt, and Erik Neimanns of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne.

The three political scientists have examined how public opinion has influenced political decision-making processes when implementing educational reforms in eight western European countries. The book summarizes the results of a long-term research project examining public opinion and educational policy.

Educational policy: a politically contested field

Often the policy area of education is very present in public perception as well as being politically controversial. As a first step and essential contribution, the authors performed a comprehensive and internationally comparative survey of public opinion on various topics of educational policy – such as funding, the role of training on the job compared to training at the university, questions of political governance, and the expansion of early childhood education. The comparative survey covered eight European countries (Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain and Italy).

In a next step, in order to evaluate the extent to which these decisions are influenced by public opinion, the study of public opinion was combined with detailed case studies of individual reform processes in the surveyed countries. “There is next to no other field in which political reform discussions are so much in the public eye as is the case in educational policy”, says Marius Busemeyer. “In Germany, but also in many other countries, there are heated debates about how and what children, adolescents and young adults should learn. Debates often see opinions held by important groups of voters, particularly parents, but also teachers’ associations and politicians, clashing fiercely.”

“Loud” and “quiet” political discussions

Is educational policy a field in which decisions are taken based on public pressure – or are bills rather based on party politics, or the suggestions of influential interest groups? The political scientists concluded that this questions largely depends on how intensely an issue is being discussed by the public, and how controversial it actually is.

If an issue is already the subject of intense public debate and the opinions are very coherent, then there is a high probability that policy makers will hear this “loud” signal and act accordingly – irrespective of their party’s agenda. In Germany, for example, public demand for further expansion of early-childhood care has been high. As a consequence, governments of various political hues have pushed the expansion of this educational sector.

This contrasts with the “quieter” issues, i.e. those less publicly discussed, where the influence of expert panels as well as interest and lobby groups is particularly strong. In Germany, one example is the field of job training, which hardly ever hits the headlines.

Unclear signals from the public

Issues that are very “loud”, but at the same time controversial, lead to a particularly high level of conflict if the signals that politicians get from the public are ambiguous. In these cases party politics plays the decisive role. For example, the introduction of partially-integrated secondary schools such as the “Gemeinschaftsschule” (comprehensive school) in the German state of Baden-Württemberg was politically controversial for years and accompanied by heated debates, protests and criticism. The public paid a lot of attention, making it a “loud” issue. In such a case, politicians must deal with the issue without receiving a clear direction from the public. Consequently, the political inclinations of the governing parties will decide.

“For politics to pick up a signal from the public and implement it politically, it is not enough that it be loud”, Marius Busemeyer explains. “It must also offer a clear direction. If people disagree on an issue, the signals from public opinion can be lost in the noise. Then party politics will decide.”

How public opinion impacts school policy

The area of school policy is, according to the study, a particularly impressive example of how the public opinion impacts political processes. “Germans have a saying: During the football world championships, there are 80 million self-declared national team coaches in Germany. A similar thing could be said about school policy – only all the time: Germany has 80 million self-declared experts on education”, says Busemeyer. The example he offers is the reform that, from 2012 onward, shortened higher secondary school education from nine to eight years. This reform was just as controversial in Germany as the introduction of the “Gemeinschaftsschule”.

“In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, we saw how politicians were initially under pressure from business associations. They consequently pushed the transition from 9 years to 8 years in secondary “Gymnasium” education. But after parents protested and publicly organized resistance – in North Rhine-Westphalia, this even took the form of a referendum – politicians reacted very quickly to the pressure of public opinion,” Busemeyer explains.

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Key facts:

– Current publication: Marius R. Busemeyer, Julian L. Garritzmann, Erik Neimanns (2020): A Loud but Noisy Signal? Public Opinion and Education Reform in Western Europe (Comparative Politics of Education). Cambridge University Press.

– Information about the book: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/loud-but-noisy-signal/2BE73266F8A69275E7D14FA784B7FFC0

– Professor Marius R. Busemeyer is professor of political science at the University of Konstanz and Speaker of the Konstanz Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality”. His research focuses on comparative political economy and welfare state research, education and social policy, public spending, digitalization, and public opinion on the welfare state.

– Professor Julian L. Garritzmann is professor of political science with a focus on educational politics and political socialization research at Goethe University Frankfurt. He studies education politics in an international comparison, welfare states, social politics and public opinion.

– Dr Erik Neimanns is a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne. He focuses on comparative political economy, welfare states, party competition and public opinion.

– The research project was funded through an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council.

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