The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has some new polling out on students’ political views – and given as I type there’s an election in three days’ time, buried in it is a statistic so shocking as to be almost unbelievable.
In Savanta’s sample, 89 per cent of students say they are registered to vote – but 64 per cent of those students who are registered to vote say they are registered only at their home address.
Let’s unpack that a bit. The poll is from early April and is of UK domiciled full-time undergraduates, and given the results are unweighted, let’s imagine that it’s nonetheless perfectly representative.
Of those registered to vote studying away from home, just 29 per cent were registered at their term-time address.
In the context of Individual Electoral Registration (IER), given that local authority Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) are required to publish and maintain registers that are as accurate and complete as possible (where complete means that every person who is entitled to have an entry in an electoral register is registered), and given that OfS-registered providers are required to cooperate with EROs to enable the registration of students (an issue curiously not mentioned in HERA post-legislative scrutiny), that’s an extraordinary policy failure.
In addition given that “intending to vote” and “understanding they need ID to do so” are both some distance from 100 per cent here, the potential democratic deficit is deeply alarming.
Does it matter? This HEPI chart from a while back compares the performance of the three main political parties in England overall with their performance in the 20 English constituencies with the highest proportion of students. In 2019 Labour secured around 25 percentage points more of the vote share in student seats in England than they did in England as a whole:
Sadly this is all pretty unsurprising – see this summary of buried Cabinet Office research from 2021. You’ll forgive me for being cynical about the prospects of a Lord Whatrton-led OfS or an Oliver Dowden-led Cabinet Office lifting a finger to close the registration gap.
And any university not doing opt-in registration at enrolment by September really should delete any references to producing rounded citizens in their marketing material.
As such even if the finding here of 85 per cent of full-time UK undergraduate students expecting to vote at the next general election is true, and even if the registration gap is closed a bit, it’s easy to wonder about extent to which any of the parties will care about the rest of HEPI’s stats on what this group believes or cares about.
We might reasonably ask what happened to the Corbyn “Youthquake” given it was said to have caused Theresa May to raise the graduate repayment threshold. This poll has 46 per cent of students saying they would vote Labour if there were a general election “soon” – significantly ahead of the Politico poll of polls average, but significantly behind the student result for Corbyn in the 2019 election.
The fact, however, that students appear to have switched into various minor parties rather than the Conservatives suggests that Labour is unlikely to be in a rush to risk that lead with a Starmer-style more “fiscally responsible” policy on higher education funding.
And while you’d have thought that the news that just 7 per cent would vote Conservative (versus 29 per cent of the public in the six month poll of polls) would cause the strategists’ some medium term alarm, we know by now that the party and its retail offer is focussed on the other end of the UK’s ageing population.
A two party system where one party takes the votes of students for granted, and the other has written them off altogether, really is a miserable system.
Elsewhere there’s a frustrating selection of student reaction to headline fees policies that Labour might promote on the main UG funding system. Those in England were given seven choices – but if anything the results tell us nothing about trade offs, and lots about how confusing the current system’s features are even when voters are trying to act in their own self-interest:
Who knows what the results might have been if the “graduate tax” option had been framed as “a policy that will see most graduates pay less but a small percentage of the richest graduates pay more” – but I’m holding out no hope that either of the parties will attempt an untying of the gordian knot either side of the election.
Even a question on maintenance – which asked respondents to respond on the appropriate mix between grants and loans – would only make sense if respondents understood the extent to which Ts and Cs rendered loans as grants for the majority regardless.
And I’m not sure what the finding that 8 in 10 think the total value of the maintenance package should be over £10k tells us (when for the poorest away from home outside of London will get just £9,978) other than students like money.
A new elite?
There are some interesting wider findings. Seven in ten students in the sample oppose Brexit, which HEPI Director Nick Hillman says may provide support for the main argument in Matt Goodwin’s controversial new book on a “new elite” graduate class.
But given that almost every poll that comes out has 18-24s in general on about 7 in 10 opposed, those that think that it’s lefty lecturers injecting opposition to Brexit into the arms of students may be themselves necking bottles of hopium in the face of a deep and seemingly unassailable cohort effect.
So what if they don’t switch to Conservative when they’re 45 when they used to? As I said when HEPI published polling on students’ voting intentions in 2020, given what used to be a life cycle effect might be becoming a cohort effect (where a whole group has different views and these stay different over time), you get two responses – some Conservatives panic about universities indoctrinating students, and others just give up on students and the young, and double down on an ageing population.
Some do both. Neither bode well for the sector – because if Sunak can’t be bothered to develop a decent policy, Starmer will feel no pressure to do so either.