This blog was kindly contributed by Dean Machin, Strategic Policy Adviser at the University of Portsmouth.
As the Conservative Party turns to reflect on its problem with the student vote, and notes that university cities are increasingly non-blue, there is the risk of some very silly suggestions.
In a largely thoughtful piece on the issue, Anna Firth, the recently-defeated Conservative candidate for Canterbury, Whitstable and the Villages , suggests that one option ‘would be to ensure that all General Elections take place outside term-time, preferably in September.’ The student vote problem is addressed by dissolving it into more manageable parts spread out over a larger area.
We should ignore the appalling cynicism of this suggestion. Anna Firth intends it as a ‘practical response’ that would appeal to many voters. She is right; it would appeal. And it would be wrong to think that this kind of view is confined to the Conservative Party. I have heard local and national politicians of all major parties express this kind of contemptuous cynicism towards students.
Students are not ‘real’ residents
It is common to think that as most students only live in an area for three to four years, for about nine months each year, and do not pay council tax, they are not ‘real’ residents and so should have fewer rights. These usually include voting rights but can go beyond this, sometimes including the right to drive a car in their university city. It is often hard to make sense of some people’s views of students. Straight-faced, I have been told that ‘there are too many students in this city and not enough of them stay after they graduate.’ There is rarely much awareness, or indeed appreciation, of the jobs and broader economic activity supported by students in towns and cities. It is even less common for people to connect those economic benefits with the need to give students a political voice. Students can choose where to go to university. If they are made to feel unwelcome, and if rules are passed that limit their rights in their university town, they may simply go elsewhere – somewhere they are wanted.
Still, it is more difficult to object to the view that students should have fewer rights if it is applied with consistency. However, I very much doubt whether there is anyone who would accept the implications of consistency in this case.
Students do not pay council tax but neither do some live-in carers or people on some apprentice schemes. There are also a complex set of ‘reductions’ available for others. We could take away the votes of carers and proportionately reduce the votes of those who get council tax reductions. Perhaps recipients of Universal Credit can get half a vote. This is fine, isn’t it?
What about part-time residency? Let us put aside the fact that some students do live full-time in their university city. Other ‘real’ residents have holidays. Often, they leave the place in which they live – and sometimes they even go abroad. Is there a cut-off point? If these not-fully-committed residents do this sort of thing too often, will they lose their vote? Perhaps we should just reduce their vote proportionately to the number of full days they spend ‘away’. Technically complex, of course, but is that really why this would be a bad idea?
I have saved the best argument until last. A final year student might have voted in last year’s election. By August 2020 he or she will probably be living somewhere else. Is it right that they have the same voice in electing the local councillor or MP as residents who will never leave? Possibly, but who else has the same profile? The terminally ill as well as the elderly in general.
For each parliamentary constituency or council ward there is a fact about the number of people aged 75 and over who can be expected to see out each of the next five years. Should the over 75s be disenfranchised? Should they have their vote proportionately reduced to reflect their (probable) remaining life-expectancy? I think not but I cannot speak for everyone here.
The belief – often impervious to rational criticism – that underpins this contemptuous view of students and their rights is that students are somehow inferior citizens and it is perfectly acceptable to treat them in ways it would morally obnoxious to treat others.
There might be an argument for modifying students’ rights and entitlements in the places in which they study. But until anyone who advocates this view thinks it through and applies it with consistency to everyone else who is relevantly similar, any policy recommendations should be treated with disdain and called out for the hypocrisy they are.