It’s still important that students are registered to vote

Universities are required to help students register to vote. Paul Greatrix wonders if this is still a priority?

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Student voter registration remains a live issue for universities.

Whilst the change in Prime Minister may not lead to an early General Election it is at most two and a half years away and there are local elections in 2023. The real impact of student voting in local and national polls remains a matter of debate but without effective arrangements for electoral registration then many students, representing a significant part of the electorate, will be unable to exercise their democratic rights.

In 2018 the Office for Students published its guidance for universities and colleges about facilitating electoral registration under the terms of Condition E5:

Condition E5: The provider must comply with guidance published by the OfS to facilitate, in cooperation with electoral registration officers, the electoral registration of students.

While this regulatory requirement is in place, and most universities look to be taking the issue seriously, there do seem to be some inconsistencies in institutions’ approaches.

Jim Dickinson, writing here on Wonkhe in 2020,expressed more than a little scepticism about the efficacy of this particular OfS Condition and the response of the sector. I wrote about this issue back in 2019, and at that time was extremely optimistic about the new software service being provided by Jisc (the development of which I’d strongly supported) to assist universities and students with voter registration. Jim followed up in 2021.

Register early, register often

The Jisc service was presented positively at launch:

Developed in consultation with the Academic Registrars Council (ARC) and the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA), this shared service provides a simple way for students to register to vote and helps your organisation achieve compliance with the Office of Students’ requirements in an easy and cost-effective way.

Benefits to your organisation

Our service can help you to:

  • Encourage students to engage with the democratic process
  • Increase efficiency – save the time and money you’d spend on developing and maintaining your own system
  • Facilitate compliance with the Office of Students’ mandatory requirement for facilitating electoral registrationKey features
  • Developed and operated by Jisc on behalf on the sector
  • Fully compliant with the GDPR and operated from our secure data centres
  • Seamless, secure data transfer via UK Access Management Federation
  • Monthly reports showing aggregated, anonymised data, enabling registrars to track progress and benchmark it across the sector

It was specifically designed to address key issues around data sharing and GDPR, factors which had hampered student voter registration in universities for a number of years.

The Cabinet Office takes a peak

A report published back in April 2021, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, although it was based on survey work somewhat disrupted by the 2019 General Election and the pandemic, sought to understand how the OfS Condition was being interpreted and implemented within the sector and highlighted some of the variations noted in Jim Dickinson’s piece.

Among the key findings were that

  • Awareness of the condition is generally relatively high across the HE sector
  • Integral to the success of the condition are positive working relationships between HE providers and local authorities. However, nearly half of all providers (47 per cent) reported that they had had no communications with any local authorities.
  • Just over half of EROs (54 per cent) reported experiencing some form of challenge when dealing with HE providers. However, HE providers reported experiencing challenges in just 29 per cent of relationships with EROs
  • The majority of HE providers believe their institution is proactive with regards to student electoral registration (73 per cent agreed with this statement), and in terms of encouraging students’ democratic engagement (86 per cent).
  • Only one quarter of HE providers (23 per cent) had embedded voter registration within student enrolment forms.

So it is a slightly uneven picture according to this evaluation and there are some noticeably different perspectives emerging from institutions and Electoral Registration Officers.

Differences of opinion

The section of the report which really interested me though was the use of software to support voter registration. Such approaches were not widespread with only 37 per cent of HEIs using this approach:

Over half of the providers that used software intermediaries (14 of 25) used Jisc to facilitate registration. Three providers used Tribal SIS [sic], two used a Microsoft solution, and the remainder used intermediaries that only received a single mention. Nearly all of the providers that employed software intermediaries paid for them (22 of 25).

The most common reasons for using software providers was because:

  • It is time efficient (20 of 25)
  • It alleviates the administrative burden of the Condition (19 of 25)
  • It reduces data protection risks (19 of 25)
  • It is cost effective (16 of 25)

Most were positive about their experience of using software intermediaries with 21 out of 25 describing them as very or fairly effective in facilitating student electoral registration with the remainder saying they did not know how effective they had been.

The report includes a set of case studies too, several of which highlight how universities have deployed Jisc’s software.

No longer a pressing problem?

However, there now appears to be much less interest in voter registration from government and the general view in the sector is that everyone is doing their best and there are many other more pressing problems to deal with.

Whilst the Cabinet Office evaluation reports positively on the benefits of the Jisc service and other intermediary software options it does not seem to be sufficiently embedded to warrant continuation. I was disappointed to learn recently that the Jisc service is to be discontinued next year. The reasons for this appear to be:

  • Low demand from members
  • Low adoption from Electoral Registration Officers (EROs)
  • Losing customers

Apparently all members and EROs have been notified and there have been no significant objections – many have seen low uptake of the service by students and understand the decision to retire it.

While I am disappointed by this decision (especially having worked hard to support the development of the service) the wider concern is what this means for student voter registration in future.

Universities do have to work really hard to get students to register. The Cabinet Office report did suggest universities and colleges were making real efforts at this. However, it does not look now to be a priority for anyone and ultimately it will be the democratic process which suffers.

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