Nick Hillman

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former Special Adviser to David Willetts.

Politicians act as if students vote in a block and are particularly receptive to policies aimed at them. That is why Nick Clegg put abolishing tuition fees at the heart of his election campaign in 2010, why Michael Howard did the same in 2005 and why Ed Miliband promised a cut in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 in 2015. In the teeth of opposition within his own party, Jeremy Corbyn is now promising to abolish fees and bring back the maintenance grants that George Osborne is currently abolishing. Corbyn is a long-standing opponent of tuition fees, but he also believes it will help him electorally. Is he right?

The Higher Education Policy Institute is today publishing the first detailed analysis of the impact that students had on the 2015 general election in England. Not only is it one of the first serious analyses of the election results, it is also one of the very few analyses of the power of students in any UK election.

There is a lot of detail, but the main finding is straightforward: students were not as decisive as many people thought they would be. Labour failed to win Conservative seats with lots of students that they had been predicted (by us and others) to snatch from the Conservatives. In 2014, a blogger described Hendon, where around one-in-seven adults is a full-time student, as ‘the seat it will be easiest for Labour to gain next year’. In the event, the Conservatives significantly increased their majority. In Loughborough, where one-in-five adults is a full-time student, Nicky Morgan turned a marginal seat in to a much safer one by winning around half the votes. Cat Smith, who went on to be one of Jeremy Corbyn’s firmest supporters in the House of Commons, did manage to take Lancaster & Fleetwood from Eric Ollerenshaw. But this was the only one of the six seats that we said students would win for Labour that actually turned from blue to red.

The Conservative Party and the Labour Party both won seats with a large number of students from the Liberal Democrats, as was widely predicted. However, the national swing against Clegg’s party was so big that students are barely part of the story. In the three student-heavy wards in Cambridge, for example, the Liberal Democrats actually came first but Labour won the constituency off them overall.

Some Liberal Democrat MPs who refused to vote in favour of higher tuition fees back in 2010 may have hoped for an electoral bonus, but they fared little better than the others. The eight Liberal Democrat MPs who survived the 2015 cull included four who had voted against higher fees and four who had voted for them.

None of this is to say students were irrelevant on May 7th. Our predictions were based on flawed opinion polls and our model was therefore calibrated incorrectly. Yet students were more likely to support Labour than the population as a whole and there also seems to have been a swing away from the Greens towards Labour as the election approached. This may have made a difference in some other seats with lots of students that Labour did manage to take off the Tories but which had not appeared in the pre-election lists of seats that students would win for Labour. For example, Labour managed to sneak in by a whisker in Chester and Ealing Central & Acton and in both places over 10 per cent of adults are full-time students. In Ilford North, Wes Streeting, a former President of the National Union of Students, managed to defeat the only Conservative to lose their job (Lee Scott, who was a Parliamentary Private Secretary) over the tuition fee votes in 2010.

The constituencies that students helped turn red made up a key part of the modest 15-seat advance Labour made across England. Yet, in the UK as a whole, Labour won more seats from the Conservatives than the Conservatives won from Labour (ten versus eight), so it is striking that they did not do better in other Conservative/Labour marginal seats with lots of students.

Before the election, the NUS claimed students could affect the election outcome in around 200 constituencies. Why, then, did they have such a modest impact? There are at least three reasons.

First, there may have been quite a few shy Tories among students. In one pre-election poll by YouthSight, 34 per cent of students said they would vote Labour and 26 per cent said they would vote Tory. In a post-election poll by the same company, an even higher proportion of students (39 per cent) said they had plumped for Labour while a smaller proportion (19 per cent) said they had supported the Conservatives. The Conservative result seems to be explained by the fact that the second poll included a ‘prefer not to say option’, which scored 13 per cent. YouthSight believe this proves the existence of shy Tories.

The general perception that students are not attracted to the Conservative Party does seem to be only half true at best. Among students, Conservatives came first equal, with the Greens, at the 2014 elections for the European Parliament, with Labour a smidgen behind. As a rough-and-ready rule of thumb, it is probably right to think that the core Conservative vote among students lies at between 20 and 25 per cent – even though, as most undergraduates are only at university for three years, the people who make up the student body are continuously changing.

It is not easy to say for certain how the Conservatives could increase their vote further among students, but I suspect the best way would be to increase the chances of new graduates securing well-paid and fulfilling careers. One possible reason why Conservatives have done reasonably among students recently is that UKIP’s messages resonate little on campus. So, if Conservative divisions over Europe become more prominent, as is bound to happen during the forthcoming EU referendum, that could potentially serve them badly among students.

Second, students were more likely to vote at home rather than in their place of study in 2015 compared to the past. This matters because it could have diluted their electoral effect as well as making it harder to measure. To make a difference to the outcome in any single constituency, students must register to vote, turn out to vote, live in a marginal constituency, vote as a block and not just support the party that would win anyway. That is a high bar and there were concerns that the new electoral registration system would reduce the number of students who would vote. It may have done so (although tens of thousands of them signed up via the online registration system in the run-up to election day and turnout among those who were registered was high). Yet the transitional procedures meant many students remained on the electoral roll at their home address even if they did not make it on to the new rolls at their term-time address.

Third, students are more motivated by the same issues as the rest of the electorate and less motivated by student issues, like tuition fees, than has often been supposed. A post-election poll for the NUS of people graduating in 2015 concluded: ‘broadly speaking, the most salient issues corresponded to those of the wider electorate, with the major exception of immigration.’ They also found that, ‘While education and tuition fees may have been a more prominent issue for the graduates compared to the wider electorate, they were certainly not anywhere near the most salient issues for them at the general election.’

All this suggests students only had a very limited impact in May. Perhaps the more interesting question is why anyone ever thought they would have a much bigger impact. All the precedents suggest student finance is not a big election issue and students have only limited electoral power.

The student vote only became a meaningful concept in the 1970s because, until the Representation of the People Act (1969), the minimum voting age was 21 and many students were (and are) younger than this. Moreover, it was not until the voting age fell that a court case brought by students from Churchill College Cambridge gave students the right to vote in their university towns and cities. For the first time, students, despite being temporary residents who were only around for half the year, could theoretically swing a constituency one way or the other. Since then, the electoral power of students has grown in line with the increase in higher education.

But there is not a single general election since students got the vote in which they have swung the overall result. It is striking how governments which have imposed unpopular changes to student finance have survived: the Conservatives introduced maintenance loans in 1990 and won in 1992; Labour introduced tuition fees in 1998 and won in 2001; Labour legislated to increase tuition fees to £3,000 in 2004 and won in 2005. John Major and Gordon Brown lost but neither had a clear higher education policy as they were, respectively, waiting for the Dearing and Browne reviews to report. Clearly, tough changes to student finance do not guarantee victory but they have also done little to bring about defeat.

So, if Jeremy Corbyn proves right to think that his commitment to spend £10 billion abolishing tuition fees and reintroducing maintenance grants is big vote winner, then politics really will have changed.

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