Hepi is delighted to host this guest blog by the (Labour) MP for Sheffield Central – the constituency that has the highest proportion of students and one of the smallest majorities (165) in the House of Commons. Paul Blomfield is Chair of All-Party Parliamentary Group on Students, Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities and has recently been nominated for the inspiring leader award in the 2015 Guardian higher education awards.

As we head towards the General Election, attention has focused on the levels of student voter registration once again. It’s much the same as we hit this point in the run-up to polling day in every election cycle. Of course it’s important that as many students vote as possible and universities and their students’ unions are doing their bit to help. But this year there are other issues at stake, for both students and universities – and they won’t go away on polling day.

The move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER), under which all of us are required to sign up individually to vote, has not only affected family households. The practice of many universities, to register students ‘en bloc’, has been outlawed. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of students have dropped off the electoral register.

The change will not just deprive students of a vote in May, but could reduce the voice of universities for generations to come. The new electoral roll will be used for a Parliamentary Boundary Review to reshape the nation’s constituencies. Without proper representation of the hundreds of thousands of students who live there, university constituencies will shrink and the sector’s voice along with it.

But it’s not too late. The Boundary Review will be based on the electoral roll at December 2015, so if students registered with universities in the coming academic year are included, constituencies will reflect their numbers. And it’s easily achieved. Universities already collect almost all the data needed to register as part of student enrolment. All that’s needed is to add two simple questions into the enrolment process for eligible students – ‘do you wish to register to vote?’ and ‘what is your National Insurance number?’

The University of Sheffield, working with the city’s Electoral Registration Officer, introduced these two simple questions into the registration process for new and returning students last September and the results have been outstanding. 64% of students opted to register to vote in the city. Initially the success was compromised by the students’ inability to provide National Insurance numbers, but new guidance from the Cabinet Office in December allowed for them all to be added to the electoral register using data verified by the university.

As universities prepare for the 2015 student entry, there is an opportunity to update systems to incorporate these two questions on voter registration. It’s a small step, but it will make an enormous difference to the voice of higher education in future Parliaments.

For more detailed information on the Sheffield system contact me at paul.blomfield.mp@parliament.uk.

For further information on the impact of Individual Electoral Registration on students, see Hepi’s recent report Do students swing elections?