Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The student vote - a myth?

With Lord Browne of Madingley's review on Higher Education funding being published today there will invariably be a lot of speculation about the political consequences, especially for MPs with universities and a large number of students in their constituencies. There will be endless talk about the potential impact of the student vote in the next general election.

But all too often the "student vote" is massively overrated and fails to materialise in any significant measure; a fact that many are privately aware of but reluctant to speak out about. There are several factors, some relating to the mechanics of voting, some to the students themselves and some to timing that all suggest to me that the impact will be less than people predict.

The first key factor is the poor levels of registration for many students. Because of the way the registration system works (see Rethinking voter registration for details), many students simply do not get put on the register at their term time address. Some universities won't automatically register students in halls, citing data protection. Often the annual forms are set out in vacation. Individual rooms in halls of residence are especially immune to direct mailings. And so forth. So many students simply do not get on the register; nor do they easily get a form to add themselves. And this is often not picked up because previous occupants of their homes are still on the register; whilst it's especially hard to find a good time to reach students with a manual canvass (particularly if election services have limited resources).

Furthermore few political parties devote resources to targeting student voters in their constituencies. Local parties have limited resources and often have to leave out some areas in their leafleting and canvassing strategies. It's inevitable that student halls and suburbs with a lot of students renting will be amongst these - the high turnover renders much data obsolete, the weekend exodus means a high level of non-replies, students can't easily answer for their whole household, halls are difficult to access and so forth.

(And on a local level students can often be detached from the politics of an area because local media has limited penetration - free newspapers again don't easily get to students for starters.)

And one timing factor is that some university term dates put elections in the vacation or at a push the very start of term - this year's general election was three days into Queen Mary's term-time (and still in the vacation of my first university, Kent). Throw in the summer exam season when some students don't even move back but only travel in on exam days and you can see why the election is even less of a priority. The turnouts for campus based polling stations are often pitiful.

Then there's the basic fact that a large number of students simply do not vote (just) on the basis of student funding. The left-wing stereotype of most students is a myth perpetuated by the noisiest who aren't the loudest, and instead there is a coreish chunk for both main parties, another chunk for the Liberal Democrats, a large chunk that simply doesn't bother to turnout even when the polling station is on their doorsteps and only a small amount of swing voters. And they can be swung by other factors - everything from the economy, crime and public services to the environment, international development and support for the arts. Their basic philosophy on life will also play a factor here.

Finally there's the timing in all this. Very few of the students who voted at their term addresses in 2010 will still be students voting in those constituencies in 2015 - a few current undergraduates who go onto postgraduate degrees at the same institution and those on exceptionally long programmes but that's about it. Some more will settle in the area where they're studying (more on them later) but realistically any MP who this year made a local pledge to students about how they will vote will not be facing many of those students in 2015 about the pledge. Many of the new generation will have forgotten about the pledge unless prompted. But in past elections the generations who actually had to pay upfront tuition fees and then top-up fees did not disproportionately turn on Labour at the subsequent election.

It's my guess that the reason why a number of constituencies with universities in them have swung to the Lib Dems in recent years has comparatively little to do with the voting patterns of term-time students but rather to other university influences - in particular the votes of those on the university payroll or graduates who stay settled in their university town. So what was reported in 2005 as a student vote swinging over fees could actually have been a middle class public sector professional vote swinging over Iraq. (The students themselves might bring some keen activists who can provide the energy for a constituency party but that's a campaigning influence rather than a voting one.)

Of course with everything there are some exceptions and I've no doubt someone can find an example of high turnout amongst a particular university's students, perhaps combined with a niche campaign. But broadly I expect there to continue to be no major impact of the student vote short of a major targeted national campaign that manages to make it a force to be reckoned with.

(That's not to say any proposals to raise fees won't have any electoral impact. However look not to the students on & around campuses but to the parents back home.)

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