Since the House of Commons agreed to an election on 12 December, there has been lots of interest in the student vote.
Lots of the chatter has been nonsensical.
For example, people who used to claim that the newish individual electoral registration system would lead to lots of students falling off the register at their term-time addresses have recently taken to claiming that elections must be held during term time in order to ensure students can vote. It is as if Oxbridge students and others whose terms end relatively early aren’t able to work out how to vote at their holiday addresses (and despite the fact that their parents will have generally ensured they are on the register at home).
Others have, equally erroneously, seemed to assume the opposite: that students will only ever vote at their home address and therefore need to arrange a postal vote if they are still away at university on election day.
And some people have made the odd claim that students who are close to the end of term will be too busy to vote – as if students have less time to set aside than a worker with three kids who needs to find extra childcare because their school has become a polling station or as if election dates should be chosen around students’ end-of-term parties and essay deadlines.
The best of the discussions about young undergraduate voters have focused on how the student vote changes over time. It does, but not always for the reasons people think. It is not primarily because young people’s views are especially volatile, though they may be. It is because one-third of full-time undergraduates leave their degree courses each year and are replaced by new students.
Consider this: only one-third of students on three-year degrees were doing their courses back when Theresa May called her 2017 election and pretty much none were students when the referendum happened over three years ago, let alone when Cameron’s last election took place in 2015.
Given the political cycle is designed to be five years long and the average undergraduate degree course lasts for only three years, in normal political times it is even possible to go through higher education without the chance to vote in a general election. For example, the last cohort of students on the old lower fees went to university in 2011 and graduated in 2014, so did not get to vote as students in either the 2010 or the 2015 general elections.
So changes in the student vote have less to do with individual students changing their minds and more to do with students themselves changing. They are, quite simply, different people.
One other trap that people sometimes fall into when discussing student voters is to assume they only care about ‘student issues’. By this, people tend to mean the level of tuition fees above all – look at Nick Clegg’s pledge against higher fees in 2010, Ed Miliband’s courting of the student vote with a promise of £6,000 fees in 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of zero fees in 2017, not to mention the SNP’s commitment to retain ‘free education’ in Scotland.
But even though many students paying higher fees do express doubts about whether they are receiving value for money and few are positive about paying such high fees, students care more about living costs than the costs of tuition.
Moreover, new evidence suggests recent specific proposals to tweak fees, such as those in the long-awaited Augar report (which proposed fees in England of £7,500 with a 40-year repayment period), are no more popular among students than the current system of £9,250 fees with a 30-year repayment period.
Above all, students – like other voters – may care more about non-student issues than they do about student issues: Brexit and the NHS, for example.
Much of the chatter about the student vote has focused on England. Most of the rest has focused on Scotland. But it is Wales that has had the most significant changes to student funding in recent years, when the Labour administration in Cardiff and the most powerful Lib Dem in the UK, the Cabinet Member for Education (Kirsty Williams), raised fees to £9,000, while also introducing new maintenance arrangements.
We have argued that the new Welsh system is inefficient in important ways, such as removing the expected parental contribution towards maintenance costs from the wealthiest households, and may prove to be unsustainably generous. Yet it has allowed those in power in Cardiff to say they have given something to everyone: universities get higher fees; all home students are entitled to some maintenance grants; and part-time student numbers have shot up.
Clearly it is possible to run a good university system with no tuition fees for some or all undergraduates – look at Germany or, here in the UK, Scotland. But how seriously should voters take Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish tuition fees in England when Labour have recently increased them significantly in the only part of the UK where they are currently in office?
The last time a party entered power in Whitehall with a commitment to eradicate tuition fees, the Lib Dems back in 2010, it didn’t go so well. Plus, the lessons from abroad, most notably Chile, also suggest that elected politicians committed to abolishing high student fees can find it much harder than expected.
For the Conservatives, they enter this election with some important parts of their higher education policy currently opaque. This means it could be hard for someone who is determined to vote on so-called student issues to know whether to back them or not.
The independent review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, which the Conservative Government commissioned (under the terms of the Higher Education and Research At, 2017), has yet to be published, even though it has been sitting on Ministers’ desks for a while.
There has been no official response to the Augar recommendations either. Besides, it is often forgotten that the Augar report itself was meant to be an independent report that fed into an official government review of Post-18 Education and Funding, whose status is now unknown.
Would a future Conservative Government raise tuition fees or lower them? Would they make the student loan repayment terms less generous or more generous? Would they abolish real rates on interest on student loans? Would they reintroduce maintenance grants? We may have to wait for their manifesto to find out.
Or, perhaps, as with George Osborne’s abolition of student maintenance grants soon after the 2015 general election, we will have to wait until after the election to find out what any victorious party will do in practice.
A high bar
Finally, as we’ve mentioned before, it remains the case that many stars need to be in alignment for the student vote to matter even in areas with lots of students.
First, students must be on the register wherever they will be on election day (or else organise a postal or proxy ballot).
Secondly, they need to actually bother to vote when election day comes around.
Thirdly, they also need to vote as a meaningful bloc – if they split equally, with 20% vote opting for each of the five biggest parties, say, then it would help boost turnout figures but make no difference to the outcome.
Fourthly, they need to vote differently to how the constituency in question would vote without students present – if students all vote Labour, say, but the constituency would have been red anyway, then their votes make no difference to determining who wins.
Fifthly, there must be enough students voters to make a difference yet, often, a university’s students are spread across a number of different constituencies. So even if they satisfy all the other points in this list, if there aren’t enough student voters in a single constituency to overturn whatever the result would be without their presence, then the best they can do is to reduce a victor’s majority.