Time is running out to make it easier for students to register to vote

A general election is coming - but it could be at an awkward time. Bess Mayhew and Paul Greatrix discuss the easy way to ensure students are registered to vote

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.

The start of a new year always heralds much political discussion in the media as commentators contemplate what is in store for the parties and their leaders in the year ahead.

With an upcoming General Election, 2024 has seen an even more feverish discussion than usual, with almost every major news story – the Post Office scandal, the challenges facing the NHS, the Israel-Gaza war – seen through an increasingly political lens.

While journalists speculate about the date, the opinion polls and the set piece speeches, work has been quietly going on at universities all over the country to prepare their students for what will, in many cases, be the first election they can vote in.

Many universities have spent years developing civic engagement priorities, aiming to give students an experience that goes far beyond simple academia and encompassing everything from health and wellbeing to climate change.

Getting registered

But one area that many of us have found more challenging is democratic engagement, in particular helping students register to vote. This in part stems from the decision made ten years ago to switch the way people register to vote from a household-based system to Individual Electoral Registration (IER).

This change had the consequence of preventing universities from automatically registering all students when they enrolled each year. After IER, every student had to individually register themselves. Understandably, many did not.

While the data is patchy, it’s clear IER had a big impact on students. A BBC investigation found that areas with large numbers of students saw a fall in voter registrations nineteen times greater than the previous year. This compared to a fall just three times greater in non-student areas. In one council ward in a student city, total registrations fell by nearly two-thirds.

While the situation has improved over the past decade as universities have adopted innovative approaches to promoting registration, students are still among the groups least likely to be registered to vote. According to the Electoral Commission, more 1 in 3 18-24 year olds are not on the electoral register (compared to fewer than 1 in 20 of the over 65s), while over 60% of people who have moved address in the last year aren’t registered either, and we know many students are highly mobile, moving every year during their studies.

The current “best guess” of the pundits is November 14th – which would make the registration deadline dangerously close to many university welcome periods. So we do need to find ways to make it as easy as possible to get students onto the electoral register.

An easy solution

There is, however, a solution. Auto-enrolment – also known as the Sheffield Model – is the most effective way of getting large numbers of students to register to vote and many universities are now adopting it. Under auto-enrolment, students can opt-in to register to vote automatically when they fill in their enrolment form at the beginning of each year. The university then hands this information to the local council, which verifies the student’s eligibility and adds them to the electoral register.

At the University of Nottingham both new and returning students were asked during the online registration process in September 2023 whether they wished to consent to their data being shared with their term-time local council for the purpose of voter registration. Of the more than 36,000 student population over 23,000 students consented or around 64% of the total. This represents a huge increase over our last attempt to encourage and enable students to register which resulted in fewer than 1,000 taking up the opportunity. This is a hugely encouraging development and bodes well for the active participation of students in the democratic process and their local community.

Once set up, the process is simple. However, some universities have found it more difficult to get the ball rolling, depending on their geography, technology or resources. That’s why over the last year, work has been done to make it easier for staff teams to adopt auto-enrolment. A new set of guidance has been made freely available, providing detailed information on how to set up auto-enrolment, along with template data sharing agreements. If your team hasn’t already seen it, I’d encourage them to download it right away.

Election speculation

Of course, the election may come sooner than the next academic year in autumn 2024, when the vast majority of students will enrol. But it’s not too late to get your students registered before then. Some universities are planning to create a one-off opt-in form that can be sent to students at any time, not just during enrolment. Others have adapted their student portals to offer registration, some even going as far as having a temporary pop up when students log in, encouraging them to opt in.

However you do it, getting registration sorted now will free up time to focus on other important aspects of democratic participation – in particular the next election has the added complication of voter ID. Many students will not have the required ID and need to apply for a certificate from the local council – something universities teams know they need to communicate as early as possible.

For institutions in England, there is a further imperative – the Office for Students has a Condition of Registration which relates to this. Under 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.

Whilst the OfS Guidance from 2018 could possibly do with some refreshing, the expectation is clear and, happily, aligns very much with what every institution will want to do in terms of supporting students to play their part in the democratic process in an election year.

Enabling students to register to vote isn’t just about the impact on them as individuals, although that is hugely important. Collectively, young people have been ignored for too long because of an outdated perception that they are not interested in politics or don’t care about the future in the same way as older citizens. We know this couldn’t be further from the truth. But students need to be able to vote in large numbers to make their voice loud and clear. We owe it to them to make that process as easy as possible.

The full guidance can be downloaded for free at: www.purposeunion.com/s/Auto-Enrolment-Guidance.

2 responses to “Time is running out to make it easier for students to register to vote

  1. The Sheffield Model works well where the majority of a provider’s students have a term-time address within a single local authority. However, when my institution recently undertook a feasibility study around auto-enrolment we identified that our students have term-time addresses in 224 UK local authorities, with no critical mass in any one LA (13% being the largest single group) – an impractical number of EROs with which to liaise, and a task for which we (specifically our IT colleagues) do not have the capacity. The concept of a ‘local’ ERO, for us, does not exist. We therefore currently take an alternative approach, signposting students annually to the voter registration service as part of our on-line enrolment process – students can’t complete their annual enrolment unless they have clicked through to the voter registration page (though of course we have no way of knowing whether or not they have registered). We also work closely with our Students’ Union team on the promotion of electoral registration in the lead up to elections.

Leave a Reply