Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and is a former Special Adviser to David Willetts.
Last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and YouthSight asked 26 questions of over a thousand full-time UK undergraduate students entitled to vote. This has allowed us to build a comprehensive picture of how a million student voters could act at the ballot box on 8th June. The results, which we have just released in full, will not make easy reading for some readers of ConservativeHome.
More than half (55 per cent) of those students who have made up their mind support Labour. The Conservatives come second, but they have only one-third of Labour’s support and the votes of just one-in-six (18 per cent) students. Two parties that have done well among students in some recent times are set to fare poorly. Just 12 per cent of students long for the Liberal Democrats and a mere six per cent go for the Greens.
Students have a general distrust of politicians – only nine per cent of them say politicians have their ‘best interest at heart’ while 49 per cent disagree. But favourability ratings, which deduct the percentage scoring each party leader negatively from those scoring each one positively, prove they don’t see all politicians as the same. Jeremy Corbyn has a favourability score of plus 29, higher than Ed Miliband in 2015. Tim Farron has a score of minus 10, which may look bad, but is not as poor as Nick Clegg’s rating last time around. Theresa May has a score of minus 33. This means that, while she is expected to win in many areas of the country that David Cameron was unable to reach, among students she is less popular than her predecessor.
In one sense, these figures are unsurprising. You don’t need to be familiar with Viz magazine’s Millie Tant or Student Grant to know undergraduates veer to the left politically. HEPI is strictly non-partisan and works with all the main political parties. But when I was elected as a student Tory 25 years ago, I was flattered to find my picture on a counter in a board game based on our student union’s politics. At least, I was until I saw it was labelled F****** Tory W***** – a nickname for anyone to the right of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party.
Some of our poll results are less intuitive. There were deep fears, which we at HEPI shared, about the impact of Individual Electoral Registration on students. When the transition from the old system occurred, lots of students dropped off the register – including 99.9 per cent in one Lancaster ward that is full of student halls. Yet things have since improved, thanks to the hard work of Electoral Registration Officers, students’ unions and university leaders. Now, according to our poll, 93 per cent of students are registered to vote.
Most of them plan to use their vote too. We asked how likely they are to vote in the General Election on 8th June on a scale from 1 (won’t vote) to 10 (certain to vote). Only two per cent of students opted for 1 and 60 per cent opted for 10. Yet students worry less about so-called student issues than is often supposed. When asked to pick their top three concerns from a lengthy list, both the NHS and Europe were picked by two-thirds of students while just four per cent went for personal debt.
It would be easy to assume this all means a raft of seats falling to Labour – or at least staying red when they might otherwise turn blue. However, it is hard to find any election where student issues have swung the result materially rather than just in a small handful of atypical seats (including Cambridge where, to declare an interest, I stood in 2010 – and even there we achieved a seven per cent swing from the Lib Dems in the midst of Cleggmania).
A couple of years ago, I argued on ConHome that: “It is striking how governments which have imposed unpopular changes to student finance have survived”. That happened in 1992, 2001 and 2005. It happened in 2015 too, at least for the Conservative half of the Coalition if not the Lib Dems. It now looks set to happen yet again. Over the past couple of years, maintenance grants have been abolished and student loan repayment conditions have been toughened up, while the new Higher Education and Research Act (2017) sets the path for tuition fee increases. Yet Theresa May is likely to end up with a bigger majority than David Cameron ever had.
Why does the student vote make less difference than is often supposed? Perhaps the most important reason is that, in many university constituencies, left-of-centre students just increase the size of the Labour MP’s majority rather than altering the make-up of the Commons. It is also possible that parties which fail to address student finance questions properly – perhaps by making implausible promises about abolishing tuition fees – look to be displaying poor economic judgement, at least to non-students. Either way, although there are hundreds of thousands of student voters, their voice gets swamped when voters as a whole decide to give one party or another a clear mandate.
One other area we asked about is the main higher education policies of the opposition parties. Young full-time undergraduates were generally born at the end of the last century, so they had not been at secondary school for long when Nick Clegg performed his u-turn on tuition fees back in 2010. We tested if the effect of that broken promise still lingers. It unequivocally does. For more than half of students planning to vote (53 per cent), the broken pledge is a factor in deciding whom to support in 2017. Only a quarter (26 per cent) say it is not. Given that the overwhelming majority of students voted against Brexit, this is a problem for Farron, as it provides an obstacle against students voting for the one big clear UK-wide pro-Remain political party.
This time, the Labour Party’s leaders, including Corbyn and John McDonnell, say they wish to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants, which would cost north of £10 billion a year. It remains uncertain if their manifesto will repeat this. But, intriguingly, even though students support Labour in big numbers, most are not convinced they would follow through in power. Exactly half (50 per cent) of students think Labour would not abolish fees and bring back grants if elected to office and only one-third (35 per cent) think they will. Even among Labour-voting students, fewer than half (48 per cent) think Jeremy Corbyn, as Prime Minister, would do as he says.
So, while our poll usefully reveals all sorts of things about how students will vote, it also raises a conundrum: students still want to punish the Lib Dems for breaking their election pledge on fees back in 2010; yet they are willing to support the current Labour leadership even though they expect them to break a similar promise.
It is not completely clear why, but perhaps all that has happened in politics in the UK and elsewhere in the last few months has made students more cynical and world-weary. Or perhaps, as one university leader put it to me earlier this week, the difference is because they really really believed the Lib Dems back in 2010 when they said they were different and more trustworthy than the two main parties. It turned out not to be.