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Casting their first ballots

What matters to students intending to vote in the general election? Rachel Hall reports from Brighton, Cardiff and Sheffield.

Five years ago, a new generation of voters cut their political teeth. University students helped bring the Liberal Democrats into government for the first time, buoyed by the hype of “Cleggmania”, the promise of free university education and the prospect of an alternative to the two-party system. The ensuing disappointment spawned another movement, which played out in protests against the shift to £9,000 fees. Now, billboards across the country show two fists tattooed with the words “liar, liar”, as the National Union of Students urges its members to unseat those MPs who broke their tuition fee promises.

In Sheffield, where Nick Clegg is the local MP for the Hallam constituency, the sense of betrayal is palpable. At the university, a group of students have led the “Kick Nick Out” campaign. Last month they occupied Clegg’s office in Sheffield to protest against the costs of higher education. Yael Shafritz, Sheffield University students’ union president says that although the group is not endorsed by the union, “lots of students are involved”. 
She adds: “Politicians are elected on mandates, the student vote helped Nick get elected. He should be held to account.”

The man hoping to achieve that is Oliver Coppard, the Labour candidate for Sheffield Hallam. The most recent poll shows that Coppard has inched two points ahead of Clegg. His campaign has been an energetic one–when I meet him in Sheffield he had literally worn a hole in his shoe leather–and communicating with the student population, which represents 17 per cent of the constituency, has played a key role. “I think it’s really important that those people see that I’m accessible,” he says. He regularly visits the university to talk to students about policies that will directly affect them–Labour’s tuition fee pledge and how they propose to improve the jobs market, including for young graduates. But there are other issues that pique students’ curiosity: “Certainly what I find when I talk to young people is there is an innate sense of fairness,” he says. “Things like the bedroom tax and climate change and zero-hour contracts. Young people are really engaged with that.”

In presenting the Labour tuition fees policy to prospective voters, Coppard highlights its two-pronged nature. Not only would the party reduce fees, it would also increase the grants to help students with mounting living costs. He also talks about the wider implications of those changes. “The system that’s been put in place now is not just bad for students, and it is, because the average student is now leaving with £44,000 worth of debt, and 73 per cent will never pay that off so it will be a millstone around their neck that stops them getting on the housing ladder,” he says. “But I also think it’s about trust in politics and them understanding that when we say we’re going to do this, we will do, should we be in government.”

That is not to say that lowering tuition fees is the only thing students care about. Indeed, many of the students I speak to say they think the repayment system justifies the high costs. Joe Walker, a first-year chemistry student, says although he’s contemplating voting Green, it wouldn’t be because of their pledge to make higher education free for all. He thinks the system is “pretty good” as it stands. Although £9,000 per year is pricey, the way repayment works is “quite manageable”.

Five years is a long time in politics

It is particularly students like Joe, who have known about £9,000 fees since their early teens, who require a different strategy. “There is a certain narrative out there that says ‘you should just talk to young people about tuition fees and make sure they vote on that basis’, but actually the people in first year now at university were 13, 14 when Nick Clegg made his infamous pledge and although it’s had a hugely detrimental impact on them, I don’t think it has the same resonance with them that some people believe it should,” Coppard says.

If anything, in Sheffield, the tuition fee pledge resonates equally with older generations. I go canvassing with Coppard around Greystones, which I’m told is a middle class area of mostly public sector workers and their families. He says in 2010 the area was draped with Nick Clegg flags, but this time any electoral bunting is an altogether more subdued affair–and there is little visible evidence of support for the Lib Dems. Knocking on doors, tuition fees come up a handful of times, often from householders with no obvious connection to higher education. Phrases like “we were let down” seems to encapsulate the mood more than the sums and figures behind debt calculations. A pensioner says she’ll be voting Labour because of “what Nick Clegg did to those poor young people last time”. 

In a phone interview, Clegg says that he finds that “often the people who shout the least are prepared to accept that we did the best we could in the circumstances”, although he acknowledges that for others "even endless explanations are not going to be enough". As the party did not have the democratic mandate to push for all of its policies, it “did the next best thing, which was to get the fairest deal in the circumstances”, he says, referring to the fact that students do not pay fees upfront and that graduates make lower repayments. Clegg tells me that two days ago, while out door-knocking in Sheffield Hallam, he convinced a sceptical veterinary sciences student to vote Lib Dem again by explaining the detail of the policy, as well as the party’s work outside higher education. “It suggests for me that a lot of people are working out for themselves that actually the system is far more affordable than its critics would suggest,” he says.

This time around, the party is seeking to connect with students on a values level, Clegg says. “I think what any youngster wants is a sense of optimism,” he says. The Labour party have left young people to “pick up the bill for the mistakes of this generation”, he argues, and the higher borrowing rates if the party comes to power would risk perpetuating that. The Lib Dem’s emphasis on internationalism, interest in climate change and protection of civil liberties, as well as its work advocating reform to drugs laws and addressing the stigma around mental health, are also areas he hopes will resonate with young voters.

When I visit Sheffield University student union, a stand is in place urging students to register to vote. Where once students were automatically registered in their halls, now they have to sign up themselves. The volunteer tells me that at the moment they’re trying to boost awareness among international students, because most British students who approach have already registered. This is partly thanks to the university’s registration process this year, which offered students the option to register to vote alongside signing up for the next year of their courses. Some 65 per cent of students opted for this and more may have been reminded by it to register in their home constituency. 

Outside, another stand is running a campaign called “burst the bubble”. The idea is that students are deterred by the Westminster bubble, so volunteers take pictures of willing individuals clutching balloons scribbled with the thing they dislike most about the existing political system. According to Foyez Syed, the fourth-year civil engineering student on the stall, the bulk of the scribbles have testified to politicians’ failure to engage with young people. He says the team are trying to transmit the message that “policies are tailored to the older generation”, citing the oft-quoted statistic that 76 per cent of over-65s voted in the last election, compared to just 44 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds.

As he tells me this, Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on students, is fielding questions from students along with a team of Labour volunteers. Although the election will be “fought at the level of big policy issues like the economy”, Blomfield says he views his appearances on campus–every day that week at Sheffield’s two largest universities–as a means of engaging with potential student voters on issues that will directly affect them and their lives after graduation. With passing students rushing to grab a sandwich or on their way to a lecture, he says that they are not always sure what they want to know about, but there is a “broad welcome” for Labour policies on grants and fees, along with questions about their rights as tenants and interest in proposals to better regulate the private rental sector and abolish letting agent fees. 

As well as tuition fees, the students I speak to are also interested in other kinds of funding related to their university experience. Oliver Reed, a biomedical science student at Sheffield University, says that, as a finalist, he’s interested in postgraduate loans. Emily Smith, a second-year languages student, explains that although she’s not into politics, she is concerned by the threat a potential EU exit might pose to the Erasmus grant she needs to fund her upcoming year abroad in Germany.

Views such as these have helped inform the Sheffield student manifesto, produced by the city’s three biggest universities and colleges. The document was presented to all the different parties and aims to provide a brief rundown of the issues students care about most. It calls for “an overhaul of the education funding system” with more public funding of universities and financial support for students, as well as the removal of international students from net migration figures and the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. The manifesto also moots: lower public transport fares for students; the reintroduction of rent controls and a national register of landlords; and zero food waste in the city’s retail and catering outlets in universities and colleges. They are all issues that regularly come up at the five universities I visit. 

Blue skies and the Greens

Although the election is highly visible at Sheffield, student political engagement does not always go so well. Arriving slightly late after a delayed train to a hustings at the University of Brighton, I find that the large room booked for the event is almost empty. The one solitary participant is sitting, reflecting, in front of the window. He is Nigel Carter, Brighton Pavillion’s UKIP candidate. I am told that the candidates left the hustings within ten minutes after only two students turned up. It is perhaps due to a lack of publicity for the event, or perhaps because it’s so sunny outside, he muses. Carter recounts UKIP’s struggles with the university–it was banned from campus on grounds of promoting fascist and racist ideas. Over five years he persuaded them the party was, in fact, a libertarian party offering an alternative to the mainstream. “You can’t stifle debate,” he insists. 

On the other side of the train tracks at the University of Sussex, Caroline Lucas, the constituency’s Green MP, is manning a stand in the central courtyard alongside volunteers sporting Students for Caroline t-shirts. Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green party, is there to give her support. Most students are idly basking in the hot April sun, but a few come up with tentative questions about voter registration, for which they are rewarded with orange Calippos.

Some bolder students arrive armed with questions about Green policies. One student approaches to ask about the 35-hour week, but quickly moves onto tuition fees. He thinks they have been “a great success”, with more students going to university than ever before. He says paying off his debt “doesn’t remotely bother me”, as he expects to “earn loads of money” on graduating. He is soon overshadowed by a pair of student fundraisers selling muffins for charity: “Caroline Lucas bought one!” they announce, presumably by way of recommendation.

Lucas is a relatively popular figure on campus, explains Michael Segalov, the student union’s communications secretary. He says students in Brighton in particular are interested in voting for parties “on the left of the spectrum” and the party is known for appealing to 18 to 24-year-olds, the age bracket into which the majority of students fit-–the Young Greens is the largest political youth wing of any party. A recent survey by High Fliers showed that a quarter of the final-year students surveyed were contemplating voting Green, compared to 5 per cent of the general population. Segalov thinks part of this is down to a desire to vote for an alternative to the traditional political system, as well as to the party’s higher education policy.

Lucas confirms she’s seen a lot of issues raised from students about tuition fees and higher education more broadly. “Scrapping tuition fees is very popular,” she says. The Green party’s stance that higher education is an essential public service rather than “a commodity to be bought and sold” has resonated with students, she adds. As does the idea that, through raising corporate tax and channelling those funds into higher education, companies are effectively paying for their educated workforce.
“There’s a sense that young people are looking for something more from their politics, they want something that has a bit more vision to it,” she says. “I think that’s where the Greens really resonate. Like the education debate, it’s not simply do you want tuition fees of £6,000 or £9,000, it’s also about the purpose of higher education.”

That was perhaps one of the things young people were looking for when they voted Lib Dem in 2010. As well as policies like free education, the party was strongly associated with its push for electoral reform. Students helped get the party into power in coalition with the Conservatives and, as part of that deal, the party had to renege on some of its pledges.
 Lucas is aware that the same could happen to the Greens if the party became a coalition partner in May. She thinks the backlash against the Lib Dems was a “very fair reaction” but acknowledges, “In coalitions difficult decisions have to be made”.

It is not 2010 anymore, of course, and some students are jaded with the battle for tuition fees. “Because I’m already finishing, and I already paid £9,000, tuition fees wouldn’t interest me, ” says Katherine Laxton, a final-year geography student. She is concerned that the constant debate over how much students should pay for higher education could result in an atmosphere of dangerous instability. Freddie Mead, a masters student, thinks many students aren’t particularly interested in the tuition fees debate, as they don’t think about the price they pay for their education in that way. “It’s an almost systematic detachment,” he says. “It has created the cult of the student experience, packaged and sold to you, and most people get into debt unthinkingly.”

For lots of these students, it’s policies that will affect their lives both as students and as graduates that catch their eye. In an email, Purna Sen, the Labour candidate, explains the high price and poor quality of rented accommodation in Brighton and Hove is “a major problem for students”. She has been working with the local Home Sweet Home campaign, which began on the university campuses in late 2013 and is aimed at improving the quality of private rented accommodation. “Labour’s proposals for the reform of the private rented sector have been particularly welcomed by students, as have local proposals by Labour in Brighton to consult on the registration of private landlords if Labour gains control of the council in May,” she says.

Swinging the vote

The idea that students are looking for policies that will improve their immediate quality of life is reiterated when I visit Cardiff. Mari Williams, the Labour candidate for Cardiff North, tells me lots of the students she has spoken to are interested in Labour’s pledges to ban zero-hours contracts and raise the minimum wage, since so many work during term-time or in the holidays. Elliot Howells, president of the Cardiff University student union, thinks the most pressing concern for students is the rising cost of living and the fact that their maintenance grants are already overstretched. There was a “minimal reaction” to Labour’s tuition fee pledge, he says, because the debt is seen as an issue to deal with far off in the future and it doesn’t affect the Welsh contingent.

Nevertheless, Howells says that the general election has been a “strategic priority” for the union, which has run a campaign entitled “24,000 students, 1 constituency–you do the maths”. As in Sheffield, the university offered an option for students to automatically register to vote and have created targeted marketing campaigns to encourage students to do so. He says there has been lots of activity at the union, including a party leaders debate and a questionnaire entitled “who tweeted what” aimed at familiarising students with the different parties’ policies. On election day, the union intends to throw a street party. “It’s been far more of a thing than I expected it to be,” says Howells. 

In terms of the visible interest in political parties, Howells says that the university has a strong Labour Students society and that many students come from Conservative strongholds in the south west, bringing “those views that accompany them” to university. The Lib Dems, he reckons, “have no chance”: its student society disbanded shortly after the U-turn on fees. Indeed, the High Fliers survey found that 6 per cent of students said they would vote Lib Dem this time, a 17 percentage point drop on 2010. He says there is “growing interest” in the Greens, mirroring their popularity in other south west constituencies like nearby Bristol West, and that Plaid Cymru are more visible on campus than ever before–“there’s been more interest [in the party] than expected”.

Although the Cardiff constituency with the highest number of students is Cardiff Central, it’s likely to be in Cardiff North that they can really swing the vote. The constituency, where several student halls are located as well as Cardiff University’s large medical school, will be a tight race between Labour and the Conservatives. “This is a marginal constituency, so students could make or break it,” says Craig Williams, the Conservative candidate for Cardiff North. He pays regular visits to the student union, collaborating with the university’s highly reputed school of journalism, and he always attends freshers’ fairs. The key message he is pushing is to trust the Conservatives to continue steering the economy in the right direction: “Making sure after their degree the opportunities are there”.

According to Williams, the students he has spoken to are primarily interested in their lives after graduation. They ask how to avoid the brain drain to London and stay in south Wales; about their job prospects; along with voicing immediate concerns about issues like transport and waste collection. When it comes to coalition higher education policy, Williams says the English students (who pay full fees) see their university education as a “good investment”, and are satisfied when he explains the detail. “People get the tuition fee policy and they can see the direct benefit because of it,” he says.

Jenny Willott, the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, confirms that over the past few years she has observed waning interest in tuition fees from students as they get to grips with the new system. “The issue now is trust rather than the policy itself,” she says. When out canvassing, she tells students that she voted against the rise in tuition fees. But she also explains that monthly repayments are lower under the current system and that, in England, it has been accompanied by effective widening participation schemes—which she thinks should be replicated in Wales.

At the Heath Park campus in Cardiff North, where the medical school is located, I speak to several nursing students. They are less concerned about fees, since the NHS covers their costs, and are instead examining party pledges that will affect their future medical careers. Andrew Cowan, in his final year, worries that high tuition fees for other courses are pushing unsuitable students towards degrees covered by NHS funding. With the choice between £27,000 or zero course fees, he says he has seen lots of students drop out of nursing degrees because their motivations were primarily financial. He adds that since the bursary to cover living costs was reduced by half under the current coalition government, he has struggled to make ends meet. However Georgina Lawton, a fellow nursing student, agrees with the current system: “Of all people, students aren’t the ones who are really suffering.”

Mari Williams says that because of the nature of the student body in the constituency, she’s been emphasising the Labour party’s pledge to employ 1,000 more doctors, nurses and other frontline staff. “That obviously appeals,” she says. In such a tight race, it’s important to get the 6,000 students on side, because “every single vote matters”. She’s been working with the student union to encourage them to register and visiting first time voters in the university halls in Cardiff North. As well as the NHS pledges, tuition fees are a key message. “For the students who are from England in Wales, that is a really practical reason [to vote],” she says. “The reception has been extremely good, it’s a massive disadvantage to many students to start off with that level of debt, there’s lots of issues around young people trying to make a start in life”.

That is perhaps an important point. Universities are about more than tuition fees, they are places where young people begin their adult lives. With many vice-chancellors calling for the cap on fees to be removed while their students are occupying parts of the building, there is a political disconnect within institutions. Calls to arms like “swing the vote”, the title of a prominent Twitter campaign, show that students see themselves as a voting bloc with interests distinct to those who manage their institutions. On or about 7 May, the nation will discover the outcome of such a disconnect.

Rachel Hall is a public policy journalist on HE.