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What is the future for university representation under the Conservatives?

  • 20 December 2019
  • By Jonathan Woodhead

This blog was kindly contributed by Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Adviser at Birkbeck, University of London.

One of the striking features about the recent general election, along with the breaching of the ‘Red Wall’ of former Labour northern heartland seats, was the increasing dominance of Labour in our larger cities.

As many UK universities are based in our cities this can have a skewed representation when it comes to higher education matters in the House of Commons. As has been discussed by HEPI on previous occasions, if a politician has a university in their constituency or very nearby this can help them understand the modern challenges of a university rather than relying on personal anecdote from 30 years ago.

At the 2015 election a whole raft of seats with universities (located in or adjacent to) were held by the Conservatives: Lancaster, Lincoln, Winchester, Southampton Itchen, Derby North, Portsmouth South, Canterbury, Warwick and Leamington, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, to name just a few, or by the Liberal Democrats who held Cambridge, Bath and Sheffield Hallam. However, by the 2017 election, following the 2016 EU referendum, a number of these seats went back to Labour or had returned again to the Liberal Democrats.

An exception to this is the Cities of London and Westminster constituency which Mark Field held throughout that period until the 2019 election. The constituency is now held by Nickie Aiken MP, also a Conservative and a former leader of Westminster City Council. The Cities of London and Westminster constituency has the largest concentration of higher education institutions located in it in the UK, including the London School of Economics, King’s College London, the University of Westminster and the Royal College of Music to name just a few. Second only to this is Sir Keir Starmer’s seat of Holborn and St Pancras, previously represented by Frank Dobson (whose funeral was this week). This has almost all of UCL within it as well as Birkbeck, SOAS, UCL Institute of Education, Senate House, RADA and part of the University of the Arts. This has been held by Labour since 1983.

Now in 2019 a number of these university seats are back in Conservative hands again such as Lincoln and Derby North as well as totally new areas for the Conservatives including Newcastle-under-Lyme (Keele University) and Stoke-on-Trent Central (Staffordshire University). There is of course higher education provision in some of the new Conservative seats such as the University Centre in Peterborough and Buxton campus of the University of Derby (High Peak).

What is clear then is that areas that have a high local student population (Derby North, Stoke Central) or are in smaller towns and cities (Newcastle-under-Lyme, Lincoln) seem to be less susceptible to the student vote, especially so in 2019 when 70% of under-24s backed Labour and these seats turned Conservative. What is happening in those larger urban seats that contain student voters and universities, such as Leeds Central, Manchester Central, Sheffield Central, Liverpool Riverside and Newcastle Central, is that they appear to add large figures onto the majorities of existing Labour MPs. Many of these universities are residential institutions which recruit from all over the UK. I accept some of the modern universities located within these constituencies will recruit locally, although those students will not necessarily live adjacent to the university.

One of the debates since the referendum, and thrown in to sharp focus during the 2019 election, has been about providing opportunities for the ‘somewhere’ and ‘nowhere’ tribes as described by David Goodhart. The nowhere tribes, particularly students, who live in the area for a small period of time have found common political cause with a different group than those of the ‘somewhere’ group who are more rooted in local communities. There are additional cultural reasons for the latter too, which are too long to go in to here, but in order to maintain political support in the newly won Conservative seats, especially the Red Wall seats, there will have to be a different offer on training, education and skills so that those communities do not feel ignored. In this, the smaller new university seats have much in common with towns and smaller cities elsewhere.

We shall see whether Augar resurfaces as hinted at in the Conservative manifesto or some other settlement will be reached but what is clear is that change will be coming.

1 comment

  1. Colin McCaig says:

    Interesting – chimes with Onward analysis earlier this year around the time of Augar publication suggesting that Conservative Party gains little from HE participation as graduates are more likely to thus become left-of-centre – and this was behind Conservative emphasis on FE and Skills. Now we have a functioning government again it will be interesting to see how this develops.

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