The Higher Education Policy Institute has conducted the first detailed political polling of current full-time undergraduates.
- 85% of full-time UK undergraduate students expect to vote at the next general election
- 89% of students say they are registered to vote and 64% of those students who are registered to vote say they are registered only at their home address
- 78% of students understand they will need photo ID to vote in future and 61% think this is a good idea
- 46% of students would vote Labour if there were a general election ‘soon’, 11% would vote Green and 7% would vote Conservative
- 28% of students domiciled in England want Labour to commit to abolishing tuition fees in England, 23% want Labour to reduce fees to £6,000, 20% want Labour to back the current system of fees capped at £9,250, 15% want Labour to cut fees to £3,000, 4% want Labour to introduce a graduate tax and 3% want Labour to let the current fees rise with inflation
- 52% of students think living costs should be covered by targeted grants and top-up loans while 25% want a mix of grants, loans and parental contributions
- 46% of students think maintenance support should be between £10,000 and £12,500 each year, while 19% think it should amount to under £10,000 and another 18% think it should be between £12,501 and £15,000
- 48% of students ‘strongly oppose’ Brexit and a further 21% ‘somewhat oppose’ it, while 2% ‘strongly support’ Brexit and 4% ‘somewhat support’ it
- 76% of students think pupils aged 11-to-16 should be prioritised when it comes to public spending on education and 75% say the same about sixth-formers but only 16% want to see early years provision prioritised
- 77% of students say the NHS is a high priority for them, 58% say the same about education and 46% about reducing poverty, but few students give priority to defence (6%), migration (5%) or international development (2%)
- 30% of students ‘strongly support’ the recent strikes among higher education staff and a further 37% ‘somewhat support’ them – when asked to elaborate on their response, many students also focus on the disruption caused to their studies
Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:
Our poll suggests it is wrong to think of students as apathetic or disengaged from party politics. Most students plan to vote and they care about the same issues as other voters, most notably the NHS.
The results won’t make happy reading for the Conservative Party, who now have minimal support among undergraduates. While they will make happier reading for Labour, it is clear there is no single student funding model that would be overwhelmingly popular with students. This will make the Opposition’s job harder as they firm up their policies in the run up to the next election.
Despite the disruption the recent strikes by university staff have caused, it seems they have had the secure backing of students – although it remains unclear if this will persist during the current marking and assessment boycott.
HEPI last conducted detailed student political polling back in the summer of 2020, since when almost the entire undergraduate student body has changed. So we polled 1,000 full-time UK undergraduate students through the well-respected market research company, Savanta, between 4 April and 19 April 2023. The margin of error is +/-3%. While we are making the full results freely available, we do not recommend using the crossbreaks, such as the individual regional splits, because the margin of error for subgroups is much higher. Sums may not total due to rounding.
The polling is aimed at discovering more about students’ political views and was conducted in part because – arguably – the higher education sector is not yet thinking sufficiently deeply about the next election, which is probably less than 18 months away (and must occur by January 2025). In education policy terms, that is close: it takes more than two years to implement major changes – for example, from inception to full roll-out in 2027, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will have taken seven years.
1. It is sometimes said young people are apathetic or that they are motivated by specific campaigns more than by regular party politics. However, our poll suggests students are far from apathetic and that the overwhelming majority (85%) expect to vote at the next general election.
2. Since the shift from household to individual electoral registration in 2014/15, there have been fears that students are less likely to be registered to vote. Yet nearly all students (89%) believe they are registered to vote.
3. Around two-thirds (64%) of those who say they are registered say they are registered only at their home address. This may limit the ability of many students to vote at an election in term-time.
4. This week’s local elections in England (on 4 May 2023) are the first major test of the new photo ID arrangements. Around four-fifths (78%) of students understand they will need photo ID to vote in future and most students (61%) believe this is a good idea. We did not, however, have room to explore what they thought about the rules on the forms of photo ID that will be accepted, which are widely regarded as favouring older voters.
5. Half of students (46%) plan to vote Labour, which is high but lower than in some other recent years, as the proportion previously breached the 60% mark. Students were previously much more likely to say they support Labour than the population as a whole but they are now more or less in line with others. However, students are much less likely to vote Conservative than the general population, with a mere one-in-14 students (or 7%) planning to vote Tory. More students plan to vote Green (11%) than Conservative. One-quarter of students (24%) say they have not yet decided how they will vote if there were to be an election ‘soon’, suggesting many students are still persuadable. If we look only at the very small number of Scottish students in the poll (65), 31% of them plan to vote for the SNP, 22% haven’t decided and 20% plump for Labour, while 11% of Welsh-domiciled students plan to vote for Plaid Cymru.
6. There is little agreement on what the official Opposition party, Labour, should adopt as their policy on student funding in England. The most popular option among England-domiciled students – abolishing fees – has the support of 28% of students, while 23% say they would like to see Labour commit to reducing fees to £6,000, 20% say Labour should back the current system of fees capped at £9,250, while 15% say Labour should cut fees back to £3,000. Letting the current fee cap rise with inflation or introducing a graduate tax have minimal levels of support, at just 3% and 4% respectively. So no one policy has anything like majority support but Jeremy Corbyn’s no-fees policy remains more popular than Ed Miliband’s £6,000 fees policy or the current system. However, most students from Scotland (91%) want the new First Minister to keep the fee-free policy – however, only 65 of our 1,008 respondents put Scotland as their home region, so there is a large margin of error on these results and they need to be treated very cautiously indeed.
7. Over half of students (52%) think living costs should be paid for ‘By a mix of grants targeted at poorer students and loans on top’, compared to one-quarter (25%) who want to see grants, loans and parental contributions and one-in-six (17%) who want to see loans on their own. The Labour administration in Wales presides over means-tested grants with generous loans on top, with no general expectation of parental contributions. Given the perceived success of this model in Wales, it is plausible that the Welsh experience would influence a future Labour Government at Westminster.
8. When it comes to the total package of maintenance support, it seems students’ demands for improvements are actually relatively modest. The current maximum loan for a non-final year English student living away from home and studying outside London is £9,978. Around one-fifth (19%) of students think the support should amount to under £10,000 and another fifth (18%) think it should be between £12,501 and £15,000, 46% think it should lie between £10,000 and £12,500. This suggests that nearly half of students are looking for an increase in their maintenance support that matches the recent cost-of-living price increases but does not go further. In the absence of an updated Student Income and Expenditure Survey, which has not been published for five years, this sort of polling information is probably the best available information on how much students need to live.
9. Brexit continues to be fiercely opposed by students, with 48% ‘strongly’ opposing it and a further 21% ‘somewhat’ opposing it. Only 6% of students support Brexit (comprised of 2% who support it ‘strongly’ and 4% who support it ‘somewhat’). Some people may regard this clear split as providing support for the main argument in Professor Matthew Goodwin’s controversial new book, as he writes of a deep and growing divide between better educated people, who he says make up a ‘new elite’ on the one hand and traditionalists on the other. Respondents were asked to explain their answer and the responses include:
- I wasn’t old enough to vote at the time of the referendum but I don’t think there was a need to leave the EU. I’m not largely affected but it’s small things like I now have to pay to use my phone in Europe and it’s a bit harder to travel through Europe as well. The country still has a lot of issues and Brexit hasn’t exactly helped the situation.
- There is not a single benefit we have gained from Brexit. It has only hindered our economy, international reputation and social and political stability. Don’t get me started or I’ll write an essay.
- The campaign was highly misinformative and the benefits promised have never come to fruition. It has increased our living costs and the NHS has got none of the money that was promised would be given due to all the ‘savings’ that we haven’t even made.
- I’m not racist.
- Many laws imposed by the European Union have had a negative impact on the UK. We as a country will also have more money at our disposal as we will not be paying millions to the EU each year.
10. Given the long-standing debate over which parts of the education system should take priority over others, we asked students, ‘When it comes to spending on education, which age groups of learners do you think policymakers should prioritise?’ There were six options, in addition to ‘Don’t know’ (which 7% of respondents opted for). While the responses were spread out, it is also clear that students want to see pupils of secondary school age (11 to 16), sixth-formers (16 to 18) and young further and higher education students (18 to 21) prioritised over younger children or older learners: while 16% of students put early years provision (children aged 0 to 5) in their top three priority groups, 31% included learners aged over 21 and 43% included primary school pupils (5 to 11), 76% put pupils aged 11-to-16 in the top three, 75% included sixth-formers and 58% included those aged 18 to 21 in further education and higher education.
11. Student voters continue to be motivated by a wide range of issues and not just by so-called ‘student issues’. When given a list of policy areas and asked to rank their top three by importance, 77% of students put the NHS in their top three, 58% included education, 46% included reducing poverty, 38% include the environment and 36% included housing. Issues that students give significantly less priority to include: transport (which only 15% of students put in their top three policy areas), taxation (13%), defence (6%), migration (5%) and international development (2%).
12. Higher education institutions have suffered from a wave of industrial action in recent months, including strikes. When asked for their views about this, two-thirds of students say they support the recent strikes (30% ‘strongly and 37% ‘somewhat’) while just 16% oppose them. Students were given the chance to explain their answer and many of the comments balance support for the strike against the disruption they have caused to teaching and learning:
- Of course they deserve better pay, but many of my classes have been disrupted. I wish there was a less disruptive way, but I guess that’s the point.
- Not all of them are in a situation where they need better benefits however some do work excruciating hours for minimal pay.
- I think that the strikes are right if they feel that they are being paid incorrectly. However, as a student it is annoying showing up to lectures and no one being there and being expected to do the work yourselves – if we were informed about absences and given sufficient resources I would be more in favo[u]r.
- I understand that they don’t get paid enough and there is not fair treatment so they have the right to strike but I also think it causes a lot of disruption to us as uni students when we haven’t done anything wrong. It is meaning the education we are paying for is not getting fulfilled and we’re losing out.
- I understand why they are striking and appreciate that for the work they do and the current inflation state they should be being paid more however it has significantly affected my studies and well being having to take the academic burden on myself.
- Fair pay is everyone’s right. However, regarding university walk-outs, I’m a bit opposed due to the lack of contact and teaching hours offered by universities.
Notes for Editors
- HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. It is UK-wide, independent and non-partisan, and funded by organisations and higher education institutions that want to see vibrant policy discussions.
- The full results are available on request (in Excel) from [email protected].
- HEPI’s report on What is the student voice? 13 essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say (August 2021, HEPI Report 140) is available here. HEPI’s report on the student vote at the 2019 general election is available here.
- On Tuesday, 16 May 2023, HEPI will be hosting an event to launch new research on the economic value of international students to the UK – for more details and to register for a free place, see here.