Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

How influential are student voters? The HE general election issues, Day 1

  • 5 June 2024
  • By Nick Hillman
  • Over the next seven days, HEPI will be running a series of pieces looking at important election-related issues. This first piece, written by HEPI Director Nick Hillman, assesses how important student voters tend to be when it comes to general election results.
  • If you are not yet registered to vote at the forthcoming general election, you can still register here (until 11.59pm on Tuesday, 18 June 2024):

There is a common view that students are a particularly influential group of voters. There are lots of them and they tend to be concentrated in certain parliamentary constituencies – plus it is known that people with higher levels of education tend to be more likely to vote than those without.

Therefore, some party leaders, such as Michael Howard in 2005, Nick Clegg in 2010 and Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 and 2019, have courted the votes of students – in all three of these cases, by opposing undergraduate tuition fees.

There is compelling evidence showing students have swung certain seats to certain parties at past elections: for example, students almost certainly delivered Canterbury from the Conservatives to Labour as well as Leeds North West from the Liberal Democrats to Labour in 2017 and then helped Labour hold these two seats in 2019.

However, it is possible to exaggerate the coherence of any block of voters, particularly one that changes in make up so much between elections. Only a small proportion of student voters at the 2024 general election will have been student voters at the last general election back in December 2019. Indeed, a typical fresher starting a three-year degree back in 2019 would have graduated two years ago.

For a student’s vote to make a difference at any election, they have to be registered to vote and they must turn out to vote – and now to do so with an acceptable photographic identity document.

For students’ collective votes to make a difference in any single constituency, they must lean in one particular direction in sufficient numbers and also in a different direction from other local voters – or else students simply extend the majority that one party would have even without their presence.

When the 2024 General Election was first announced, there were many claims, especially on social media, that the timing could effectively disenfranchise large numbers of students. By polling day in early July 2024, students will typically have already gone home after the end of their academic year. While this makes it harder for students to vote at their place of study, it is far from disenfranchisement.

Students can legally be registered to vote in two places and, like other voters, can organise a postal vote. Moreover, HEPI polling shows the majority of students who are registered to vote are registered only at their home address (64%), while the second largest group are registered at both their home and term-time addresses (22%).

So, while some students may be abroad on 4 July, it is probable that more students will vote – rather than fewer – in any election held during university holidays. In some cases, students’ home addresses will be in constituencies more likely to change hands too.

So, in some respects, the voice of students’ could be amplified – even if it is harder to discern – in 2024 than at elections that have occurred during the undergraduate term.

A second complication when assessing the student vote is that polling shows students do not only – or even mainly – care about so-called ‘student issues’, such as tuition fees and loans, any more than older voters only care about pensions.

When asked by HEPI about their top three priorities, for example, six-in-10 students put the NHS in either first (39%) or second (22%) place. Recent polling from the National Union of Students (NUS) suggests students also put the cost-of-living, education, housing and mental health, in addition to health and the NHS, above student funding in importance.

In part because students themselves change, as people graduate and new students enrol, the political preferences of the student body change over time. All three major UK-wide parties have led polling among students within living memory. The latest polling of students, published by the NUS in April 2024, suggests students currently lean heavily towards one party: Labour. (It is thought staff in higher education have also tended to support Labour in large numbers in recent years but the quality of the evidence is much less good.)

Around four-in-10 (38%) students plan to vote Labour, with the next most popular party – the Green Party on 11% – enjoying less than one-third of this support, and the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives trailing behind with just 5% support each. However, when asked, almost one-in-three students (30%) intending to vote said they had yet to decide how to vote.

Aside from the very low level of support for the current governing party, the Conservatives, the most striking finding from recent student polling is the level of frustration on whether policymakers care about the views of young people: the overwhelming majority of students polled by the NUS disagree with the notion that ‘politicians generally value the views of young people’ and only a tiny minority agree.

So while, overall, there has been a common tendency to exaggerate the influence and coherence of the student vote, it can make a difference at close elections, which the polls suggest 2024 may not turn out to be. Yet when a result is close, the outcome can conceivably be ascribed to any single block of voters.

Further reading

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *