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It’s vital that we get students registered to vote

Nearly one in three people aged 18-24 are not registered to vote. Bess Mayhew urges universities to play their part in turning that figure around
This article is more than 1 year old

Bess Mayhew is Director at Purpose Union

Students experience many important milestones that mark their transition into adulthood.

For some it’s living away from home for the first time, for others it might be getting your first part-time job or being able to afford your first car.

But for many a huge moment is being able to cast your first vote in an election.

Participating in the democratic process isn’t always the coolest of activities but it is undeniably an important moment in your civic journey with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

Most of us remember the first time we entered a polling station and put an X in a box, even if we don’t actually remember who we voted for.

I certainly remember first voting, both in sixth form and at university. I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the local elections, but given the polling station was actually on campus, it would’ve been unjustifiably lazy not to show up.

But I actually failed to vote in the first election after I left university and started work. I didn’t realise I needed to register beforehand in order to be eligible – I’d thought I could just show up at the polling station.

This was made all the more embarrassing as I was working for an MP at the time.


You see, when I was studying, universities were able to register students to vote en masse. My university signed me up to vote automatically when I moved into halls, without me even noticing.

Those who came after me haven’t been so lucky. Since Individual Electoral Registration (IER) was introduced in 2014, students have had to register to vote themselves. Many may have missed out on voting simply because, like me, they didn’t realise they needed to.

Motivated in part by my own experience, I am carrying out research into student voter registration and issued a call for evidence. Funded by the UK Democracy Fund, the study aims to understand what universities across the country are doing to make registration easier for their students, and in particular any barriers they face.

We’ve already unearthed some interesting findings. All the university staff I have talked to are actively thinking about their role in a student’s civic experience. As part of this, they believe it is important to provide opportunities to learn about and participate in democratic elections, often starting with helping their students register to vote.

It’s not just seen as a good thing to do – the Office for Students actually requires universities to demonstrate action on this issue, under what’s known as Condition E5. The trouble is, the OfS does not provide a huge amount of guidance on what constitutes best practice, or how staff can implement it.

So universities end up doing a range of different activities: some provide an information page on their website; others run registration stalls on campus.

However the data show the most effective way to get students to register is by offering an automatic opt-in during the enrolment process (known as auto-enrolment).

Students tick a box asking to register to vote and the university shares their information directly and securely with the local authority who can then add them to the electoral roll.

Estimates from introducing this system at both Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield show a potential increase in student registration rates from 13 per cent of 75 per cent.

This begs the question why don’t more universities implement auto-enrolment? At the last count, fewer than 1 in 4 higher education providers offer it.

No way to control it

Our research has found that many university staff aren’t aware of auto-enrolment as an option and, for those who are, it is often too complicated an ask.

Auto-enrolment requires regular engagement with the local authority (in some case multiple local authorities), carefully-worded data sharing agreements to comply with GDPR, and flexible technology to enable the opt-in check box.

These challenges could all be overcome if there were simple guidance on how to implement auto-enrolment, but we haven’t been able to find any. Staff at individual universities have to reinvent the wheel each time. Facing competing regulatory demands and limited time, it is no wonder auto-enrolment is put at the bottom of the to-do list.

For a number of years, JISC provided a possible solution, offering universities an alternative system that automates the process for staff, allowing the data to be shared directly with the local authorities. However JISC is retiring the software this year, meaning students enrolling in the autumn will not be able to use it and leaving many staff teams scrambling to find alternatives. Far from going forward on student voter registration, we are now at risk of going backwards.

We hope the results of our research can prevent this, and provide a clear path on how we can make progress across the sector. But we need your help.

If you are reading this, I have a simple question: will you fill in this short survey or pass it on to a member of staff at your institution who is responsible for voter registration? Usually the right person can be found in the Registry office, Student Services or Enrolment teams.

University staff face a myriad of competing priorities, and voter registration is not often at the top of that list. But the truth is students are underrepresented when it comes to our democracy, shutting them out from this crucial part of civic life.

Data on student voting is patchy but the Electoral Commission estimates that nearly 1 in 3 people aged 18-24 are not registered to vote at all, nor are nearly two thirds of people who have moved home in the last year, many of whom will be students.

Universities are in a unique position to help reverse this trend. I hope that, with your help, we will be able to prevent more students making the same mistake I did, turning up to vote only to be told I hadn’t done the right paperwork.

2 responses to “It’s vital that we get students registered to vote

  1. Research by HEPI and a polling company at the 2015 and 2017 elections and 2016 referendum suggested that HE students are one of the most likely demographics to vote and more likely than the population as a whole. The reason for overall poor turnout among young people is due to those who don’t go to university.

  2. @David M Hoskins and Janmaat, J.G. (2019) Education, Democracy and Inequality: Political Engagement and Citizenship Education in Europe reached the same conclusion.

    “Evidence from previous elections shows that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least engaged. In the 2017 general election, 18 to 34-year-olds who were either unemployed or doing unskilled and semi-skilled labour had a turnout of 35% – lower than any other group.”

    “Further education does little to help undo the inequalities consolidated during lower secondary school. To the contrary, we find that doing A levels makes young people even more engaged while experiencing vocational education does not make relatively disengaged youth more involved. In a sense this is not surprising as vocational education is dominated by practical, job-related courses that don’t provide learning opportunities that would increase political engagement.”

    “While six per cent of children whose parents had left school at 16 had taken part in mock elections within the past year, the figure was double that among those whose parents had degrees. Overall, children of parents with degrees were 50 per cent more likely to take part in political activities at school than those whose parents left school at 16, and 40 per cent more likely to do so than those whose parents left school at 18. Rather than trying to compensate for this disparity, we find that schools with a lower socioeconomic student intake organise much less of these types of activities than schools with a higher social intake.”

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