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New polling suggests many students will vote tactically over Brexit

  • 7 November 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

Elections are generally characterised by uncertainties but some things are certain.

We wouldn’t be having this election if it weren’t for Brexit. The Prime Minister wants the election to be about Brexit, and the opposition parties agreed to an election because of Brexit. The Brexit Party’s announcement that they will stand in hundreds of seats ensured the early days of campaigning have dwelt on Brexit.

So here, for the first time, HEPI reveals the latest polling on students’ views towards Brexit and how this could affect the general election, which have been provided exclusively to us by the specialist polling company YouthSight.

The results, which come from 1,047 full-time undergraduates, have not been made available before but they are from the same opinion poll as the latest voting intention figures for students that were published last week.

The fieldwork was undertaken at the beginning of October 2019, and some important things have happened since then (including the Prime Minister agreeing a deal with Brussels), but the picture painted by the responses is nonetheless very clear.

  • 74% of students say the country was wrong ‘to vote to leave the EU’, with just 14% saying the country was ‘right’ to do so and with 12% opting for ‘don’t know’. (See first chart above.)
  • The overwhelming majority of students believe they should get a say over the final Brexit decision, most (70%) via another referendum and 14% ‘through our elected representatives’, with just 16% wanting no say.
  • If there were to be another referendum, three-quarters (73%) of eligible students would vote Remain and, assuming they were on offer, 8% would back the sort of deal favoured by Theresa May / Boris Johnson and 7% would go for a ‘softer’ deal, with 13% opting for ‘don’t know’.
  • Most students think the Government has not been listening effectively to young people on Brexit, with 37% saying they have done this ‘very badly’ and a further 38% opting for ‘badly’ and most of the rest (19%) picking ‘neutral’. Very few say the Government has done this ‘well’ (4%) or ‘very well’ (2%). (See second chart above.)
  • Most students are negative about how Brexit could affect their own prospects, with 34% saying Brexit will change their prospects ‘significantly’ for the worse and 41% ‘slightly’ for the worse, with 13% opting for ‘no change’ and 8% saying their circumstances will ‘slightly change for the better’ and the other 5% opting for ‘significantly change for the better’.
  • Most students say Brexit could affect how they vote in a general election, with 29% saying it will ‘strongly impact’ on them and a further 42% saying Brexit will affect their vote ‘to some extent’ – just 12% say Brexit will not impact their vote ‘at all’ while 17% opt for ‘don’t know’.
  • Among those who say their vote is likely to be affected by Brexit (748 respondents), 53% are willing ‘to vote tactically’ over Brexit and 15% are unwilling to do so, with 33% neutral. (See table below.)

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

The student vote may or may not make a big difference at this election. It all depends on how close the overall result is. But when the student vote is discussed the conversation tends to dwell on issues like tuition fees. In fact, at this Brexit-focused election candidates’ views towards the EU could be a bigger factor when students decide how to vote.

Most of today’s full-time undergraduates were not at university when the 2016 referendum took place, nor when the 2017 election occurred. They are literally different people to past student voters. But the majority of today’s students are strongly pro-Remain. They want another referendum and most say Brexit could affect how they vote at this election. A sizeable proportion are willing to consider full-on tactical voting because of Brexit.

Any candidate who wants to secure the support of local students needs to engage with what they say about a range of issues and avoid treating them as one-dimensional or obsessed only about their own financial position.

HEPI’s previous work with YouthSight on students’ views towards Brexit is available here (November 2015), here (December 2017) and here (January 2019).

HEPI’s other recent commentary on student voters is here and here.

The full data are available at or by emailing HEPI.

Notes for Editors

  1. The survey was conducted between 3 and 8 October 2019 among a representative sample of 1,047 full-time undergraduate students at UK universities. Quotas were set for course year, gender and university type. All participants are members of YouthSight’s 150,000-strong online research panel and completers receive shopping voucher credits. Results may not add up to 100% due to rounding.
  2. HEPI was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate. It engages with political parties across the political spectrum and, for example, recently hosted / took part in events at the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party conferences.

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