It’s time to unlock students’ voices

As new guidance on getting students registered to vote is published, Bess Mayhew and Paul Greatrix call on universities to automate the admin

Bess Mayhew is Director at Purpose Union

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

By law, the next General Election must take place before the end of 2024.

For many students, this will be the first time they have the opportunity to vote, an important milestone in their introduction to civic life.

We believe that the student voice is a vital part of our national political and social landscape. But to be heard and to play a fully part in the democratic process, students need to be registered to vote.

Both of us have written on Wonkhe before about the role of universities in student voter registration and the importance of getting students involved and remain concerned to ensure that this critical issue is fully addressed by our sector.

Long before they put an X on their ballot paper, students must have first registered to vote. Ten years ago, most universities automatically registered many of their students with the local authority, without most students even realising it.

But in 2014 a new system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) was introduced, which effectively banned this practice. Each student now has to actively choose to register to vote.

While the direct impact on students is difficult to gauge due to a lack of data, evidence shows that IER has most likely led to fewer people overall registering to vote. And the danger is a serious democratic deficit that the sector has a responsibility to close.

Mind the gaps

Even though the adult population has risen by 2.6 million since before IER was introduced, the number of people on the electoral register has increased by less than 500,000, a shortfall of over 2 million.

Many students fall into the groups least likely to be registered to vote. According to the Electoral Commission, just 66 percent of 18-24 year olds are on the electoral register, compared to 94 percent of the over 65s, while a mere 36 percent of people who have moved address in the last year are registered.

Students are likely to fall into both these categories, making them doubly worse off. While it’s true that increasing numbers of students are mature and/or commute from home, there are many who are young and highly mobile, often moving every year of their studies, meaning they have to re-register each time.

Even those who are registered to vote are far less likely to do so at university (as opposed to their family home), despite the fact that students are entitled to register at two addresses, provided they only vote once in national elections.

Just 1 in 4 students are on the electoral register at both home and university, with most of the remainder either not registered at all or only at their family home.

This means hundreds of thousands of students are missing out on voting in local and mayoral elections, as well as Scottish Parliament and Senedd elections for those studying in Scotland and Wales.

As a consequence, they have less of a stake in their community – after all, why would a councillor bother to engage students on local issues if they’re not able to vote?

Even more significantly, not being registered could actually damage local democracy. Councils regularly redraw boundaries of wards based on population data from the electoral register.

If many students are missing from the register, the boundaries could be redrawn in a way that reduces the number of councillors per head, reducing democratic representation in areas with high student populations.

Civic engagement

Despite this somewhat gloomy outlook for students, a new report uncovers some of the fantastic and innovative work that universities are doing all over the country to support their students to register to vote.

Over 50 institutions responded to a survey carried out as part of the research and it is clear that university staff care deeply about their role in promoting civic engagement among students.

One method of student voter registration stands out above all others as the most effective – “auto-enrolment”, also known as the Sheffield Model. At its simplest, a student is able to opt-in to register to vote automatically on their enrolment form.

The university then hands this information to the local Electoral Registration Officer (ERO), who verifies the student’s eligibility and adds them to the electoral register. Some universities have also reached agreement with the ERO and actually perform the verification themselves.

The results are encouraging – the original Sheffield pilot estimated auto-enrolment had the potential to increase student registration from 13 percent to 76 percent. It appears to benefit everyone too – students have a streamlined process that is more accessible and convenient; universities sometimes receive a small fee from the ERO to cover the costs; and councils can make significant savings by reducing the number of unregistered students they are legally obliged to contact to ask them to register.

Yet despite these advantages, the research revealed that just 1 in 3 universities offer auto-enrolment (up from 1 in 4 in 2021). If it’s such a no-brainer, why doesn’t every university do it?

The truth is, setting up the process can be a little time-consuming and complicated, though the good news is once it’s up and running, auto-enrolment is fairly simple to manage each year. The report found that, while many institutions were keen, they needed more guidance, particularly around the thorny issue of GDPR, on data accuracy and with technology.

Many were also worried about potential cost and most weren’t aware that some EROs are happy to pay universities a small fee (usually £2-3,000) to alleviate this.

Helping hands

In response to this lack of support, new guidance has been published today on how university teams can set up and manage auto-enrolment. It covers engaging with your local ERO, editing student records systems and ensuring accuracy of data.

It also provides template text and data-sharing agreements. For those universities that already have auto-enrolment, the guidance looks at how to improve the system, including working with multiple EROs (which is where some real complexities can emerge), options for dealing with voter ID requirements and improving impact measurement.

We’d like to encourage all staff whose remit includes student voter registration to download this guide and start using it today. SUs will also want to engage with relevant university officers to explore how the issues within the guide are being addressed or what other plans there are to promote student voter registration in the next academic year.

If the SU spends weeks on end running stalls to get students to fill in paper forms in exchange for donuts, that’s good. But that’s also weeks on end that could be better spent discussing the issues, running hustings events and encouraging students to use their vote.

We have at most 18 months (and very possibly less) before the next General Election. Now is the time for all universities that can, to set up auto-enrolment, ideally for the autumn 2023 enrolment. If that isn’t possible, the guidance outlines alternatives, such as allowing voter registration via a student portal or a separate form emailed to all students after enrolment.

But if Covid taught us anything, it’s that when circumstances demand it, universities can make big things happen fast if they choose to. This is one of those opportunities.

If every HE institution in the UK implements auto-enrolment, we can ensure not only that all students can exercise their democratic right at the next election, but at future elections too – getting into the habit of voting early sets people up for a lifetime of regular voting.

What better way to help students participate fully in civic life and ensure all voices are heard within our democracy.

The full guidance can be downloaded for free.

One response to “It’s time to unlock students’ voices

  1. As pointed out when this forum topic is raised, University students are in fact far more likely to vote in elections than citizens of the same age who are not studying for degrees. Yet there continues to be calls to devote valuable resource to register University students when in fact the existing mechanisms are more than adequate. There seems to be no comparable effort to register young people who are not at University, which would actually increase turnout as these individuals would go on to vote more regularly throughout their lifetimes.

Leave a Reply