David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Many of us assess policies based on whether they would work, and how they could be implemented.

For politicians there is an extra layer of consideration – are the policies popular in and of themselves (are they popular), and are they a priority among voters (do they have salience).

Any campaign plan starts with a list of policies. Perhaps these are ideologically attractive to a given party, perhaps they are just plain sensible (they fix known problems in public services or social mobility, for instance). Both need to be filtered for popularity and salience before they get anywhere near a manifesto or key speech.

The case of tuition fees

Abolishing tuition fees is not a salient policy, and neither is it a popular one. That is the challenging central finding of this morning’s Public First polling – that, in campaigning terms, Keir Starmer’s apparent decision to scrap the Corbyn era commitment to free higher education was the right one.

Tellingly, having any policy at all on this issue loses Labour votes – though ruling out fees loses far less votes than the alternative (even given the attack lines on scrapping pledges). This suggests a low salience – people are just not concerned enough about the issue to feel that any stated policy is a good idea.

One reaction to this from those who care about the higher education sector would be one of despair. Universities are struggling with rising costs and a real-terms fall in income, graduates are being asked to repay an increasingly high proportion of their salary towards fees, and students are struggling with existing maintenance arrangements. For a “world class” sector the financial position (and more specifically, the lack of government or regulatory action to address finances) is very concerning.

But we need to be clear what this survey data is telling us. The sector may not have electoral salience, but not everything a government does needs to be in the manifesto. Talking about university finances may not be currently attractive to voters, but action on university finances may well be needed before we hear voter concerns.

The graduate difference

It’s been popular to see university experience, even more so than the standard age and social demographic based indicators, as the best predictor of voting intention for the coming election. This was a pattern we started to see in 2017 and 2019, and in polling since a Labour-wards slant to graduate voting intentions has been consistent and visible.

To be clear, the overall effect outside of party identification is more subtle than is usually painted – graduates tend very slightly to the left, whereas non-graduates tend to see themselves more in the centre (or just don’t know), when asked to rate their political stance on a numeric scale:

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(note that in this and following tables I’ve omitted a very small number of PhD graduates – the sample size was too small to derive any useful information from. The overall poll is based on more than 8,000 responses collected in May and June of this year)

Elections, goes the old adage, are won from the centre. Higher education does have a small predictive link to more extreme positions (which honestly is surprising to all but the most determined of culture warriors – even though the rightward shift is as notable statistically as the leftward one), but also to more nuance.

Here’s how this maps to party affiliation (note this is May fieldwork, and unlike the “horse-race” polls you usually see I’ve included the “I would not vote” and “I don’t know” columns):

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Today’s Labour party is not – to most pragmatic observers – a hard-left party. One reading of recent polling (that would, to my mind, foolishly ignore issues of competence and trust) would be that it is currently more successful in occupying the centre ground where most of the public sit.

Funding proposals

On this basis, it is worth digging into the way in which university experience (in this case being a graduate) impacts views on university funding. You would expect to see an impact from both personal experience (fostering a deeper understanding of what universities do) and political stance here.

Firstly, a series of questions around fee levels:

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Clearly nobody is keen to see fees rise – but support for fee cuts is far stronger among those with degree level qualifications or above. There’s a consensus on the unfairness of £12,500 – and I would put the optimum level somewhere between £6,000 and £7,500.

That is (qualified) support for fee cuts – but what specific policies would be of interest to voters?

The relevant question has a complex design, which is worth explaining. Participants were shown four of these policies at random, and asked what their favourite and least favourite were – the split is simplified to “graduate” and “non-graduate”.

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Of interest to both groups is a more progressive fee system – where students from lower income backgrounds pay less than their better off peers. This does not directly address the regression added to the fee system by Plan 5 (which means better off graduates pay less than they otherwise would have) but it is in the same spirit of economic fairness. There’s also a fascinating split in support for a return to maintenance grants: non graduates are more likely to support funding for this drawn from higher taxation, whereas graduates would prefer to see the funds come from higher tuition fees.

Also worthy of note – increases in the number of international students don’t seem to be enough of a concern for anyone to renege on their opposition to rising fees, but student maintenance does. With the amount of culture war whistles being blown at the Conservative party conference it is always helpful to remember just how little stuff like that moves the needle.

However we shouldn’t get carried away here – the salience of this issue, compared to other priorities, is pretty low. This question allowed participants to select up to three priorities from a list – education quality and access (the red line) is a distant priority, especially as compared to the big three: the cost of living, the NHS, and the economy more generally.

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There’s no massive education level effect for those top three – though those with a degree level qualification are much less likely to cite immigration as a key concern, while being marginally more likely to cite climate change and housing. There’s a small rise in salience of education policies linked to levels of education too, but nothing to get too excited about.

Area based deviation

However, if we chuck in some data from Public First’s accompanying Multiple Regression Poll (MRP) (based on the new constituency boundaries) things get a little more interesting. There is a strong relationship between areas that strongly believe more people should go to university and that strongly believe fees should be less. And these are nearly all inner city constituencies that are very likely to be held by Labour next year based on this polling.

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There is clearly still a core of the Labour vote that strongly supports low cost (or free) mass higher education – whether this has salience as a determining factor in voting choices for these constituency electorates is unclear.

As if to demonstrate this lack of clarity, if you plot nets for academic against vocational learner (the whole country wants more FE and apprenticeships, with leafier constituencies in the lead) against nets for overall policy (everyone wants fees to rise if the equivalent is less people going) there is an equally strong relationship. People, in other words, who want more FE also want higher fees if it means more people can attend university. No, me neither.

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What could we take from this?

If you consider the emerging split between graduates and non-graduates as an animating force for the next election there’s not much to gain from actually talking about university funding. Graduates marginally see the issue as more important, but not to the extent that it is a notable difference – climate change and housing are much more popular specifically among graduates, whereas they see immigration as less of an issue.

On the policy itself there’s no appetite for fee increases to support rising university costs – any money would have to come via another route, and none of what seems to be on offer is especially possible. For any form of change to the existing model we’re looking, realistically, at the kind of technical shift that would pass unnoticed – which given the sums involved feels unlikely.

Universities – or the funding of them, at least – are unlikely to figure much in the forthcoming long campaign, unless the extent and nature of the oncoming crisis becomes apparent to the public. The best we could hope for is another “major review”, supported by all parties, over the election period.

Bonus data

Well, I can’t wave an MRP at you and not plot all the results, can I? This is the as-stands England only MRP, not either of the hypotheticals that Jess covers in her piece. As above, data was collected over May and June this year.

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