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After a decade of the Sheffield Model, there’s still more to do on student voter registration

  • 27 July 2023
  • By Paul Blomfield MP
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Paul Blomfield MP, Member of Parliament for Sheffield Central.

Nearly ten years ago I started a conversation between the University of Sheffield and Sheffield City Council after a change in the way people could register to vote.

The new system – known as Individual Electoral Registration – meant universities could no longer register students ‘en bloc’ and we were concerned that fewer students in Sheffield (and elsewhere) would register as a result.

After some discussion and with the strong backing of the Vice-Chancellor we agreed to trial a new model, where students in Sheffield could register to vote when they enrolled each year. Subsequently known as the Sheffield Model or ‘auto-enrolment’, this system made a big difference.

It not only offered the opportunity to replace the previous system but offered opportunities to universities that hadn’t used ‘en bloc’ registration. Sheffield Hallam University, for example, estimated it could have the potential to increase student registration rates from 13% to 76%.

I’m delighted that, in the intervening years, almost one in three universities in the country has adopted auto-enrolment, and it is now widely regarded as best practice when it comes to student voter registration. A recent study found that auto-enrolment doesn’t just lead to higher numbers of registrations, but confers a whole cache of other benefits.

For students, registering to vote through enrolment is quick and easy, something to be done routinely at the beginning of the year. Even if those eligible choose to vote in general elections at home, it gives them the option of voting in devolved, local and mayoral elections at university, giving them a stronger stake in the community.

For universities, although the setup of auto-enrolment can take some time and effort, once the system is in place it’s easy to maintain each year. The more students who register automatically, the less resource needs to be spent on registration activity and the more they can focus on other democratic engagement, such as encouraging turnout or hosting debates. Some universities even received a small fee from the local authority in recognition of the admin costs involved.

Finally, the council can potentially save significant sums of money. Without auto-enrolment, they are legally obliged to contact every student who isn’t registered at least three times – by post, phone and sometimes even in person – which can be extremely costly. In fact, John Tomlinson, whose contribution as the Electoral Registration Officer at Sheffield City Council was crucial, estimated a saving of £160,000 per year.

Despite these benefits and with a decade of proof of concept, there are still around 100 universities that don’t use auto-enrolment. When surveyed, most of them were very supportive of auto-enrolment but didn’t have good enough information on how to go about setting it up. With a million other priorities, it’s understandable that piecing together the right info wasn’t at the top of everyone’s list.

For this very reason, a new guide on implementing auto-enrolment has been produced by the authors of the research, with valuable input from members of the Academic Registrars’ Council and the Association of University Administrators.

It provides a comprehensive resource for university staff, covering practical issues such as data sharing agreements, GDPR, adapting student enrolment forms and more. While each university is different and will have specific requirements, many of the recommendations are adaptable to suit individual need. And for those universities that already offer auto-enrolment, there are suggestions on how to improve the process still further – for example by working with multiple EROs, registering international students or tackling the new issue of voter ID.

Whether you are a Registrar, COO or member of the student services team, I urge you to read it or, if you don’t have anything to do with student voter registration, pass it to a colleague who does.

In an era of rapidly changing political landscapes and an uncertain future, giving young people a voice in the democratic process is of utmost importance. We know there will be an election by December 2024 at the very latest, and most likely before. That gives us some time, but not much.

If every university in the country aims to set up auto-enrolment by then, we can pave the way for an entire generation to become active, engaged citizens, empowered to shape their communities and the world at large.

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