This article is more than 4 years old

Will the student vote swing a December election?

Will all the students have gone home by the time a 12 December 2019 election happens? And what could this mean for the result? David Kernohan crunches the data.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There’s talk of a December election – and 12 December is the current date under discussion.

Whether or not you believe that this will actually happen, you can’t fail to spot a developing narrative that suggests that the choice of date overlaps with the end of university term, and that this will be bad news particularly for Labour. Another tactical masterstroke by Classic Dom, and so on.

This theory is currently based on nothing more than supposition. University was an important time in the lives of many of our top politicians and political journalists, but the rosy glow of these halcyon days bears little resemblance to the modern student experience. So Team Wonkhe got our heads down and collected data on the first day of the Christmas holiday for every single major UK university.

When does Christmas start at university?

[Full screen]

As can be seen, the most common date for the first day of the Christmas holidays is Monday 16 December, but a sizable minority, primarily in Scotland, finish a week later on 23 December. Those finishing earlier than 16 December are primarily small, specialist providers – along with the famously short-termed Oxford and Cambridge.

However, choosing a single date hides a lot of complexity. Many universities have exams or coursework deadlines either at the end of December or in early January. For those students involved, the last weeks of December may involve some full-on revision and writing up – for other students there may be an excuse to slide on home early. This will vary by course and by year of study, as well as by provider.

There’s also a social aspect – student societies and sports clubs might be running events for members, and there’ll be a few keen to participate in “drink the SU bar dry day”. And let us not forget that many providers will have students who live locally and commute to study – some with many more in this situation than others.

What is the impact of a local university on election day?

The narrative in 2017 was that the student vote (or more generally, the “youthquake”) led to a higher than expected vote for Labour in university constituencies. More sober analysis suggests that this was absolute nonsense, but the idea persisted long enough to spark the Augar review.

I’ve looked at these electoral effects before on Wonkhe, concluding that this relationship is slightly more complex than the picture painted above. However university constituencies in general do tend to vote anti-conservative, and pro-remain, though it is unclear how much of this is directly down to the student vote. Not least because many students (especially in London) will live in a different constituency to the one they study in.

And let us not forget the effect of university staff – often a sizeable population in a constituency and, as countless “culture wars” think pieces remind us, a population that tends to be on the left of the political spectrum.

So I’ve plotted each provider on a scale showing the majority of the constituency it sits in. The colours of the dots show the party that held the seat after the 2017 election, and you can filter the list by the first day of the Christmas holidays for that provider using the sliders on the top.

[Full screen]

What do we see?

There are some university seats with perilously small majorities. Southampton Itchen (Solent University) is a Conservative seat with a majority of just 31, Newcastle-under-Lyme (Keele University) is a Labour seat with a majority of 30. Two Plaid Cymru seats, Arfon (Bangor University) and Ceredigion (Aberystwyth University) have a majority of around 100. All of the above named universities finish on 16 December.

With a fair number of these marginal seats, it is clear that the university vote would have a chance of affecting the result. I’ve included the student and staff FTE of each provider, so you can see a few seats further up the chart that could turn interesting with concerted higher education action, not least Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Brunel University, London) currently held by one Boris Alexander De Pfeffel Johnson.

Here’s a plot that ranks seats by the potential difference between the parliamentary majority and university vote.

[Full screen]

Clearly, this isn’t an exact analysis – we’ve already identified that many students and staff will live in other constituencies… an effect so massive it hardly even matters that I used last year’s FTE data. The other consideration to bear in mind is that the student vote may not break on expected party lines – the remain mood on campus is such that you could imagine this being a more pressing consideration than a baseline left-wing sympathy.

Thanks to Sofia Ropek for her help with data collection.

One response to “Will the student vote swing a December election?

  1. There are two universities in Ceredigion – Aberystwyth and Lampeter. UWTSD (to give it its full name) rises on the 13th.

Leave a Reply