• education policy;
  • redistribution;
  • partisanship;
  • inequality

This article explores the determinants of the configuration of public educational expenditure. Recent contributions to the political economy debate about public education have rightly emphasised that the redistributive consequences of state intervention may vary across levels of education. But they focused mainly on the explanatory role of government partisanship in understanding spending at different levels of education. In this article, I propose a more comprehensive political economy account by considering the interaction of the ideological preferences and electoral motives of governments to explain variation in the allocation of educational budget. Through a time-series cross-sectional analysis of several developed industrial democracies observed in recent decades, the article demonstrates that the ideological orientation of governments and the position of the median voter do influence decisions regarding the distribution of public educational resources between different schooling levels. While right-wing parties prefer to concentrate resources on university, they appear to respond to an economic downturn of the median voter by reducing in a more significant way relative spending on tertiary education.