Labour’s tuition fee cut promise and the student vote

Stephen Fisher, 27th February 2015

Today Ed Miliband announced that a Labour government would cut university tuition fees from £9000 to £6000 a year.

In December the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report I co-authored showing that the student vote seemed to respond to the changing pattern of generosity of party policies on higher education funding since 1997. Most notably in 2001, 2005, and 2010 the Liberal Democrats did particularly well among students by offering the most generous package.

But this does not mean that Labour will reap big rewards for their promise today.

As the report shows, in 2005 students primarily punished Labour for an apparent breach of promise on top-up fees, but the Tories did not benefit from joining the Liberal Democrats in promising to scrap tuition fees. Labour have already benefited considerably from students deserting the Liberal Democrats following the breach of their 2010 pledge on tuition fees. It is not clear there is much scope for them to benefit further on the issue.

The main challenge facing Labour’s student vote now is the Green surge. Some recent surveys suggest around a 10 point swing from Labour to the Greens among students since early 2014. It is hard for Labour to compete on generosity with the Green policy of abolishing fees and reintroducing grants (ED234). But, students who prefer the Greens might now be more likely to vote tactically for Labour.

As an election strategy, it is not clear that the student vote is worth chasing anyway. The new Individual Electoral Registration system seems to have led to serious under registration of students (e.g. see here, here, and here). Students have previously had lower turnout than other electors even when registered. There are now also indications that students are more likely to be registered at their home rather than their university address, perhaps raising the risk of low turnout at what will be a term time election.

Nonetheless the HEPI report showed that there are up to a dozen seats where it looks like differential swing among students might affect the outcome.

The effect of the issue on non-students rather than students will probably have greater electoral implications.

Increasing tuition fees was hugely unpopular in late 2010 even though people were more accepting of the principle of students paying the bulk of the costs of their education. More recent YouGov data shows the public are still evenly divided on the extent to which the costs of university education should be paid for by general taxation or by students.

It remains to be seen whether voters (perhaps particularly parents and grandparents) will appreciate a fee reduction enough to entice them to vote Labour, or whether accusations of fiscal responsibility from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will prove more damaging.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Nick Hillman for comments on an early draft.

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