Universities and #GE2017 – Cardiff Central

As part of our ongoing series about the general election, I took a look at my hometown, Cardiff Central, an area increasingly defined and dominated by higher education.

Cardiff is quickly joining other post-industrial metropolitan centres such as central Sheffield, Leeds, and Manchester, as a university city par excellence. The Cardiff Central constituency is now home to five universities: Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan, the University of South Wales (USW), The Open University in Wales, and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWC).

The 2011 census records 24,000 full-time students living in the constituency, the third highest in the country. 31.6% of the population is 16-24, the second highest percentage in the country (after Sheffield Central). 36.3% are private renters, the fifth highest in the country. And the constituency has the highest percentage of residents with a level 3 qualification as their top level of education, a further reliable indicator of a large undergraduate population.

The density of the universities’ presence in the constituency has only grown since that census was taken. USW, formed in 2013 as a merger between the University of Glamorgan and University of Wales, Newport, has gradually expanded its presence in central Cardiff at the expense of its predecessor institutions’ historical homes in Pontypridd, Caerleon, and Newport. Cardiff University has grown to be the eighth largest in the country.

Recent years have also seen the universities transform the physical landscape of the city centre. RWC opened a new £22.5 million facility next to Cardiff Castle in 2011. The second phase of USW’s ‘Atrium’ development was completed in 2014. Private accommodation blocks and ‘student castles – common now in many university towns – have popped up across the city centre in recent years. Cardiff Met recently ran into trouble with local residents with its plans for large new accommodation blocks at its campus in the well-to-do area of Cyncoed.

This turn towards the city centre has reflected wider trends in the South Wales economy, in which economic activity has gradually moved out of the isolated coal mining areas of the Valleys and regional towns. Again, this is typical of a trend seen in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, and Birmingham, with the service sector economy – of which universities are of central importance – geographically concentrated, and a wider post-industrial heartland falling behind.

These economic, demographic, and institutional shifts suggest that, while the student and university vote is still relatively disperse, it is gradually becoming more concentrated in a smaller number of parliamentary seats. Cardiff is typical of this shift, which is also shown by the small number of university towns and city centres outside London and Scotland which had very high Remain votes in last year’s referendum. While Wales voted to Leave as a whole, Cardiff Central is estimated to have voted at least 68% in favour of Remain.

New heartlands

After ten years of being comfortably held by the Liberal Democrats, Labour’s Jo Stevens retook the seat for Labour in 2015, with a 12.8% swing. Stevens, who has worked for trade unions as an employment lawyer, looks set to hold the seat comfortably, despite some Lib Dem hopes at the start of the campaign that their anti-Brexit message might cut through. Indeed, in the recent local elections the Liberal Democrats actually lost seats despite being the largest party in the city as recently as 2012. The Conservatives made gains at their expense, with Labour retaining overall control and holding onto the majority of wards that make up the Central constituency.

It’s been a strange year for making political predictions in Wales. At last year’s Assembly elections (held before the referendum), UKIP’s surge across the Valleys was the major talking point. But as elsewhere, the party now appears to be in decline. At first, this looked set to benefit the Conservatives, with polls suggesting the party was poised to take seats they have held before, particularly in the Valleys and towns surrounding Cardiff such as Bridgend and Newport. Only at the end of April, there was talk that the Conservatives were on course to win in the Principality for the first time in over 150 years.

How things have changed in recent weeks, with Labour’s healthier polling numbers seeing a particularly noticeable revival in Wales. Yet even at their lowest ebb, Labour have never looked threatened in Cardiff Central. The seat is a very different kind of new Welsh heartland for the party, and is much more similar to the central seats of the aforementioned cities in the North and Midlands than it is to Pontypridd or Blaenau Gwent. The presence of multiple large universities is an important part of that transformation.

Rough Diamond

Recent polling of students has shown strong support for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, and particularly of his promise to abolish tuition fees. However, there are questions about the extent to which the policy will apply to Wales, where higher education funding is a devolved matter. The Labour-led Welsh Government is currently poised to treble tuition fees in return for more generous student maintenance funding, as recommended by last year’s Diamond Review. Though Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams is the minister in charge, Welsh Labour’s position appears to be at odds with the national leadership.

At last week’s BBC election debate, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood pressed Corbyn to clarify whether his policy of free tuition would apply to Wales. Corbyn stated that it would, but it is difficult to see how a Labour government in Westminster could force a turnaround in policy by the Labour-led government in Cardiff Bay. The question also remains whether Corbyn is willing to explicitly disown the Welsh Government’s implementation of the Diamond reforms, should he be pressed on it. All this confusion raises questions about whether student voters in Cardiff Central and elsewhere in Wales are taking the question of devolved powers into account when making their choices.   

This is a distinctly Welsh spin on the political climate of what is otherwise an increasingly typical ‘metropolitan’ seat. Cardiff Central, like many city-centre seats with a big higher education presence, is becoming less and less like its immediate surrounds. The extent to which universities have driven the seat’s demographic shifts will only be truly known at the next census in 2021. But for now, the growing concentration of students looks to be good news for Labour, who look a safe bet here as the election campaign enters the home straight.  

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