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Debunking the non-voting student myth

University students turn out in elections much more frequently than is commonly supposed. David Morris reflects on the latest HEPI research into student voting behaviours.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

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.

One response to “Debunking the non-voting student myth

  1. Analysing the complete body of students is like taking apart an onion, layer upon layer … which you can slice into or look at different parts of.

    At its core is the traditional concept of the ‘dormitory student’, mainly in England, living at home with parents after School, but going away between 18 and 21 for a large part of the year to study in a town or city some distance from the home, usually living in halls of residence or enclaves of ‘student housing’ close to a campus, returning in the long summer break. This is the popular media and politicians conception of what the ‘Student Vote’ is based around. These students have the benefit of being on the electoral register twice, following the famous Fox v Stirk judgement as long ago as 1970. However under electoral law (and most practicalities) they can only vote once in a general election and where they are likely to do this on June 8th is rather hard to estimate.

    But around this core are many other different types of student: some living at the parental home and commuting daily, some who are parents themselves or live in their own home and commute, some who use distance learning including the likes of those studying with the Open University, some are in the workplace and studying including those on graduate apprenticeships, some go to FE Colleges or private sector institutions, a few go abroad to study for part of the year but retain voting rights, many study part time or postgraduate, some work significant hours, some are overseas nationals with no or limited voting entitlement … these student groups are individually smaller than the core, but as many individual layers probably represent the majority of the onion. They have very different patterns of behaviour and interests to the assumed ‘core group’ so beloved of the media and politicians, because in the main they came almost exclusively from the core group themselves or their own children are in this group, and they have complete ignorance of the wider diversity of the student body.

    You can see the rubbish that wrong assumptions produce in the mistaken ‘analysis’ produced in the Times Higher Education coverage this week of those Universities where the ‘Student Vote’ has the main impact. They appear to have simply taken the total number of FT UG UK students reported in HESA and divided it into the voter population of the constituency where the University’s address is located. Absolute poppycock – ignoring multi campus institutions and the fact that many students commute from all over a region to attend certain universities, as well as taking no account of where students will be living on 8th June. It’s depressing that such an esteemed publication has such a low level of understanding.

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