It’s another election, and as usual, there are concerns about youth and student turnout.
The ‘register to vote’ drive on university campuses appears to already be in full swing. NUS has relaunched its ‘Generation Vote’ campaign, and a range of organisations including the Electoral Commission, Bite the Ballot, and ‘Turn Up’ will be hastily liaising with universities and students’ unions to organise registration drives.
Concerns about student electoral participation following the introduction of individual registration even forced a late amendment to the Higher Education and Research Act. The Office for Students will have the power to require universities to collaborate with electoral officials to get their students on the register.
Yet a closer look at the evidence suggests that efforts to increase university student turnout are making a critical category error: confusing university students with young people more broadly. The logic appears to be as follows: youth turnout is poor, therefore getting university students to vote will fix the problem.
Yet as polling by HEPI and Youthsite released today reveals, 82% of students classify themselves as near certain enough to vote on June 8th. Youthsite’s research found that 87% of eligible UK students voted in last year’s EU referendum. Even accounting for any possible errors in their method, this is significantly higher than the 72% national turnout, and well above the overall 18-24 turnout of 64%.
Student turnout was also higher than the national average in the 2015 election, where Youthsite’s polling found 69% voted, compared to a national turnout of 66% and an estimated 18-24 turnout of 58%.
This false equivalence of poor youth participation in our democracy with student apathy does a disservice to young people who both do and don’t go to university. University students are castigated for having a lack of political interest, when in fact they may be just as politically engaged as many older demographics. Yet perhaps far worse is the neglect of young people who do not go to university and did not study A levels, who are by far and away the least likely demographic to vote. The 2010 election saw 18-34 year olds holding GCSEs and lower qualifications turnout 30 percentage points lower than their peers with a degree. Our public discourse has led to the common deductive fallacy that university students equate to the totality of young people.
The same trend can be seen when concern about youth turnout is accompanied with analysis of intergenerational unfairness in public policy. Look at the pensions triple-lock, and compare it to tuition fees, we are told.
Yet more apt is the comparison between policy outcomes between higher and further education – that is, between the voting and non-voting young. The university educated young are still getting a bad deal compared to their parents (believe me!), but a much better deal than their less well-educated peers. Intergenerational injustices far more egregious than no-upfront-cost tuition fees are much more likely to impact the non-student young, such as cuts to housing benefit and the lower-age limit on the National Living Wage.
Next week’s manifesto launches will no doubt see a mix of honest and superficial attempts to bring out the young vote, and will likely focus overwhelmingly on university students. Labour and the Greens appear to be leading the charge in this regard, as befits their capture of the student vote won after the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 disaster. Who knows, maybe the Tories – who appear to reliably capture about a fifth of the student vote – will have an easter egg of their own, perhaps related to increasing young home ownership? Whatever happens, I’m not sure any attempts to engage the ‘yoof’ this year will quite match the cringeworthy efforts last year by the Remain campaign.
As HEPI’s valuable research in this area over the last few years has shown, the student vote is less powerful than is often supposed because it is widely dispersed – only one-quarter of students plan to vote in their university constituency. As Adam Wright highlighted on Wonkhe at the time of the last election, students are also far from single-issue voters, holding a broadly more ‘liberal’ outlook on public and social policy issues than the general population that extends to issues such as the NHS, the economy, and social justice issues around race, gender and sexuality.
The polarising effects of the EU referendum may have only confirmed that liberal outlook, with 85% of students having voted to Remain last year. However, Jeremy Corbyn’s lukewarm support for the Remain cause appears to have deterred only small numbers of a generally ‘Remainiac’ demographic. 55% of students in HEPI’s research plan to vote Labour, and their increase since 2015 appears to have come primarily at the expense of the Greens, suggesting a reorientation of an already left-liberal voting block. Almost completely in reverse to the national picture, students polled have a much more positive view of Corbyn than of Theresa May. Sadly for Corbyn, this will not be nearly enough to overturn his unpopularity with the electorate as a whole.
As for young non-students, it is perhaps telling that we have very little information available about their voting preferences or patterns, or their reasons for not voting at all. This probably tells you all you need to know about what is really the most democratically peripheral demographic in the UK today. Voter registration initiatives might have more success by getting off campuses and out into the wider world.