Education, education, education: Key factor in EU referendum vote not adequately taken into account by polls

A new report published by NatCen Social Research suggests both online and phone polls of voting intentions in the EU referendum should pay more attention to how many educationally well and less well qualified people they have in their samples.

In the report, the sixth in the ESRC-funded “What UK Thinks: EU” project, Prof John Curtice examines several theories as to why there continues to be a divergence in the referendum voting intentions reported by phone and internet polls.

Prof Curtice concludes that the difference between the two kinds of polls is more likely to be a consequence of differences in the kind of people that they manage to interview than to the different way in which the two kinds of polls are administered.

However, he argues that because surveys such as NatCen’s British Social Attitudes have shown that graduates are much more likely than non-graduates to be in favour of Remain it is essential that all polls should identify how many graduates and non-graduates there are in their samples. At the moment they are not regularly doing so.

As a result, it is difficult to be sure that one of the reasons that it has been suggested why phone polls tend to have a higher proportion of Remain supporters than internet polls – that they contain more graduates – is correct or not. Such limited evidence as there is appears to be inconsistent.

The report scrutinises a number of other possible explanations:

The Don’t know issue: Some have posited that reticent Remain voters find it easier to say “Don’t know” on the internet than they do over the phone. However, online polls still secure lower levels of support for Remain than phone polls even when they do not offer Don’t Know as an option.

Shy Leavers? One theory goes that Leave supporters are less inclined to say to a phone poll which way they will vote because they think it might be a less socially acceptable answer. However, there is no sign that this is the case when those who say they “don’t know” are pressed for an answer.

Political Commitment: Online polls have been criticised for having too many politically engaged people, who are therefore more likely to vote leave. However, it could simply be the case that online samples have both more Remain and Leave voters who are politically engaged than phone polls.

Prof John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research said: “From the evidence available we are still unable to give a definitive answer as to why there is a difference between the polls conducted online and over the phone. It seems more likely, however, that the explanation lies in the composition of the samples that they obtain rather than the way in which they ask their questions. The failure of most polls to take into account the educational background of their respondents means that we do not know enough about how well either form of polling is adequately reflecting one of the key demographic differences in this referendum.”


Download the full report here


For more information or a copy of the report contact Sophie Brown:, 020 7549 9550 or 07734 960 069 or Leigh Marshall:, 0207 549 8506 or 07828 031850

  1. The ‘What UK Thinks: Europe’ website can be accessed at It provides a comprehensive collection of polling and survey data on attitudes in the UK towards Europe, data on what the rest of Europe thinks about the EU, and impartial commentary and analysis on the evidence of the polls. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its initiative on ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’.
  1. NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.
  1. The UK in a Changing Europe – – promotes independent, rigorous, high-quality academic research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union. We provide an authoritative, non-partisan and impartial reference point for those looking for information, insights and analysis on UK-EU relations.
  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.