Does anyone really care about getting students registered to vote?

Universities have a legal duty to help get students registered to vote. How is that working? Who knows, finds Jim Dickinson

Do you remember that moment during the run up to the election when everyone was terrified that the timing of the election might mean that Labour would somehow steal the election?

It feels like a long time ago now, and endless analysis largely debunked the idea that students as a bloc could have (or did have in 2017) that kind of simplistic influence. But in many ways, I kept saying to myself, it’s hardly the point how they might vote. Shouldn’t anyone in a free and democratic society want everyone to vote and as such want everyone to be registered to vote?

Blocking measures

If only it was that simple. A decade ago problems with the system of “block” registering students to vote meant that at the 2010 general election, NUS calculated that around 22 per cent of students weren’t registered. But instead of working to make that better, the coalition made it worse – in shifting from household registration (which linked both halls of residence and council tax exemption in HMOs to electoral registration) to a system of individual registration, it’s estimated that 800,000 people dropped off the electoral register in 2015 – with students in university towns “at highest risk of being disenfranchised”.

Not only does this mean that despite the sector’s expansion, it may well be the case that there are fewer students actually now voting, it has also meant that students’ only civil society organisations – SUs and NUS – now have to expend all their resources for months on end encouraging students to register to vote. In an ideal world they’d be doing what other representative organisations do – campaigning to PPCs and parties on issues like student hardship or university funding – but instead they’re scrabbling around plugging a disenfranchisement hole of the government’s making.

To help tackle the problem, during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act, some canny characters in the Lords has a go at an amendment that would have reintroduced automatic electoral registration for students. Who knows why Jo Johnson was so keen to see that defeated, but the Lords dug in and a compromise was reached – handing the new Office for Students the task of creating, when registering a provider:

a condition requiring the governing body of the provider to take such steps as the OfS considers appropriate for facilitating cooperation between the provider and one or more electoral registration officers in England for the purpose of enabling the electoral registration of students who are on higher education courses provided by the provider.

So that’s all fixed then, right? Not so much.

Lords have mercy

In the UK both houses of Parliament utilise select committees to engage in post-legislative scrutiny, and last June the Lords formed one to look at the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 – the one that introduced Individual Electoral Registration (IER). So far they’ve issued (and reissued) a call for evidence and met with the likes of the Electoral Reform Society and Bite the Ballot, and now they’ve had chance to meet with reps from NUS, the British Youth Council and – of particular interest – OfS. And, in an act I’m chalking up as “above and beyond”, I watched the whole thing live, so you didn’t have to.

The first fun thing to note about the evidence from OfS’ Director of External Relations Conor Ryan is that this appears to be one of the few areas in OfS’ remit where they are curiously quiet about outcomes. In all their other work OfS never misses the opportunity to draw a line under the past by stressing that it’s outcomes that matter – but here, invited to reflect on the impacts of OfS’ duty on universities or students, Ryan didn’t offer up levels of compliance or percentages of students registered.

That’s probably because he doesn’t know. Back when OfS published “Regulatory advice 15: Monitoring and intervention”, it set out how it would test whether each condition of registration was being met. You might have thought it would use data from local authorities or provider returns on the number of registered students – but it ruled out using “lead indicators”. Because the duty focusses on cooperation with electoral registration officers, it could have made a “reportable event” the ERO not being helpful – but that was ruled out too. Instead, it said it would rely on “notifications” (when someone tells OfS something) and random sampling.

One of the implied reasons given for the lack of impact evidence was that the duty is so new – but let’s take a trip down memory lane for a minute. Before ERAA13 was even passed, Universities UK had pledged that universities would help bridge the gap, and in 2016 its CEO (someone called “Nicola Dandridge”) wrote to the sector and urged it to “integrate voter registration with start of term university registration”. HEFCE babysat bits and bobs of work throughout the decade. Jisc tried to help, but hardly anyone listened. Jo Johnson wrote to the sector during the passage of HERA on the issue. OfS issued its guidance in September 2018. So whilst it’s true that OfS’ powers in this area only kicked in in August 2019, neither the scale of the problem nor the blindingly obvious solution should have been a surprise for the sector.

As such, given how keen it was to sabre-rattle about its full powers back in August, you might have assumed that OfS would have reacted to the committee call for evidence and the winter general election to do some “random sampling” to see how the duty was being implemented. Sadly not. Ryan only quietly suggested that the Cabinet Office might be doing an evaluation, trotted out the same Sheffield case study that his boss was using in her old job, and declined to say whether he thought OfS’ powers were delivering the outcomes. Shouldn’t everyone be integrating with enrolment, asked the chair? Well, we can’t force people, said Ryan – hurling the issue back at Parliament.

Endless debates

It is possible to have a long debate about the wording of HERA, and the way that it unhelpfully splits a duty to facilitate student electoral registration between two bodies with two regulatory regimes (that then can blame each other if it doesn’t happen). It’s possible to argue that only a return to block registration is the answer, and that it was a daft thing for Parliament to impose. It’s possible to argue that OfS has been busy, that the cabinet office hasn’t been pushing it, that the general election was unexpected, that some providers tried very hard, and that students could hardly have escaped the publicity around individual electoral registration.

But it’s also possible to argue this. Even if there wasn’t any regulation, universities move millions of students into towns and cities and claim to produce citizens. Yet so many SUs that I talked to during the run-up to the election talked of little to no cooperation from their university over IER. Several talked of senior types unwilling to deploy budget or middle management time to prioritise the issue. A large number described raising the issue to reactions of derision, dismissal or surprise. The idea that providers were ensuring that franchise partners met the duty is probably for the birds. So many were told that with such short notice (only a decade after all) that arrangements like integration with enrolment or even getting a slide on the campus TV screens was “just impossible”.

None of these SUs – fearful of ruining their relationship which pays their bills – will likely use OfS’ “notifications” process to grass up the lack of action. And let’s not forget that well over half of the providers on the register don’t have an SU, and as such it’s hard to imagine their hand-picked course reps will be boning up on HERA and the regulatory framework to judge their providers’ compliance with a duty to enable the electoral registration of students.

Just about the only intervention from Chris Skidmore – a former Cabinet Office minister with responsibility for electoral registration (and who should know better) – was to amplify on Twitter the baseless culture wars allegation that students were being registered against their will. It took us – not OfS, or the Cabinet Office, or UUK – to work out that proper work between EROs and universities would eliminate the need for students to quote their national insurance number. And even that Lords committee spent more time asking NUS and the BYC about the three students on Twitter who probably pretended to vote twice than the hundreds of thousands systematically shut out of the UK’s democratic process. What a state we’re in.

Coming round again

On the day I’m writing this, we’re 93 days away from English local elections – which means 73 days until students have to be registered to vote – again. About 118 English local councils, eight directly elected mayors and forty police and crime commissioners will be chosen, along with elections to the London Assembly in conjunction with the London mayoral election.

Notwithstanding the huge cuts to those bodies over the past decade, these elections matter – both to supposedly civic-minded universities and to students who form a major part of communities, and need their voices heard in decisions about planning, housing, facilities, safety and crime. Can we at least get the TV screens sorted this time?

4 responses to “Does anyone really care about getting students registered to vote?

  1. According to the British electoral survey turnout among University students is consistently 8-10% above their socio-demographic counterparts. It would be a major surprise if the 2019 BES gives a different result. Actual voter turnout thus provides no evidence that Universities are failing in their duty and some evidence that they shift the needle significantly. It would be a better use of public resources to raise registration rates among those young people who do not progress into higher education.

    Three cheers for democracy and three cheers for UK Universities.

  2. What a daft argument. You might as well say that there’s a graduate salary premium above their socio-demographic counterparts and that it would be a better use of public resources to cut funding to universities and give it to everyone else – which to be fair, the Augar review does argue! Most reports of BES by the way only cover to 2010 and often quote turnout amongst registered voters. If you have to go to the trouble of individually registering at a new address well yes, you’re more likely to vote.

  3. Politicians know student turnout is high and that’s why they court their votes. It is not ‘daft’ to point out the democratic deficit among young people not engaged in the electoral system and who are far more likely to be outside of higher education.

  4. A peer-reviewed paper by Mellon, Evans, Fieldhouse, Green & Prosser points out that dual registration of students at home and at University is contributing to significant underestimation of voter turnout. This is because estimates of aggregate turnout use the registered voters as the denominator. The study reports that the UK has a growing underestimation gap and that the difference has risen faster than in either Sweden or the USA (the comparative countries examined in the study). Participation in higher education in the UK rose during the study period.

    While not conclusive, this evidence is consistent with campus-based student voter registration.

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