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Students: The Forgotten British Voters

Most students will cast their first general election vote on July 4. But what are the UK’s two largest parties doing to appeal to the over two million British students who could head to the polls in less than two weeks?

We all know young people don’t vote, the older generations do. Polling by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), however, has suggested that more than eight in ten students will vote in the next election. The student vote holds serious sway over how the 4th of July pans out, but absent statistics such as the aforesaid you wouldn’t know it. Practically no policies being discussed or circulated by the Tories or Labour are aimed at students. Those mooted are underwhelming, particularly when compared to the 2019 manifestos.

The Conservative Party has held Downing Street since 2010. After five Prime Ministers, they are faced with polling which, if it rings true, would wipe them off much of Britain’s political landscape. 

Surely a party in such dire straits is making overtures to the masses of prospective student voters? In short, no.

Whilst the Conservative Party does have some higher education policy, it comprises little more than political chicken feed. At the 2023 Conservative Party Conference, Rishi Sunak and Gillian Keegan laid out their higher education vision. Sunak continued his criticism of the New Labour policy of pushing young people towards higher education. They offered little more than a continuation of the blame game, an unfounded one at that: though the student body has burgeoned, so did apprenticeships every year in England up until 2015/16, when it began a consistent fall under the Tories. The Conservative Party has had political aeons to change this, meaning many of their higher education ‘policies’ simply ring hollow.

Indeed the Conservatives often approach outright disdain for students. Sunak stressed the need to eliminate so-called “rip-off degrees”, ie those that do not ‘adequately’ improve students’ careers prospects. As with much contemporary Conservative policy this purported drive to recruit 100,000 apprenticeships annually is nebulous. No clarity has been offered on precisely which courses face the axe, precipitating a wave of speculation and rightful indignation amongst the usual punching bags.

As a former sociology student, I’m no stranger to the claim that mine was a ‘Mickey Mouse degree’ of little use career-wise. Other social scientists, and indeed students across the humanities, will be familiar with such conversations. 

The stereotype is wearing. Social science graduates are increasingly in demand. Their multifarious training comprises understanding consumer preferences, risk analysis, organisations (e.g. HR, project delivery & development), finance, regulations, etc.

If we’re in the business of pointing the finger at useless degrees, how about the fact that of the six most popular degree subjects among Members of Parliament, all would be found in either social sciences or humanities departments. Are their degrees ‘useless’? Has former Prime Minister Boris Johnson not crowed enough about the importance of reading Classics at Oxford to his political career?

Johnson is in fact a stellar example of the importance of university. Johnson’s much publicised network at Oxford included many future colleagues, notably David Cameron and George Osborne. His writings for esteemed Oxford publications were no doubt indispensable in getting a foothold in journalism, which was to be his leg up into politics and Parliament.

But back to the choice at hand. The Conservative manifesto contains few surprises. The meagre higher education subsection reiterates their policy of closing down courses with “the worst outcomes”. The idea, that government has the right to prevent students from studying what they wish, is simply asserted as dogma. For a party so steeped in small-statism and themes of individuality and responsibility, what could Conservatives possibly say to the student who maintains it's their debt, their life, their choices?

Tory higher education policy is oddly underdeveloped and poorly thought through where it has been articulated. Little thought seems to have been given to how their anti-’Mickey Mouse’ degree rhetoric harms present, past, and future students. It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Conservative Party has already admitted defeat on the student vote, indeed on the youth vote altogether.

On the other side of the Commons sits the perennially indecisive Labour Party. Under Jeremy Corbyn, both the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos promised to scrap tuition fees.. In his 2020 campaign for the Labour leadership, Keir Starmer reiterated this immensely popular promise. 

In a not-so-shocking turn of events, a politician has changed their mind.

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has scrapped the policy of abolishing tuition fees, instead promising to ‘reform’ tuition fees with little to no explanation of what this connotes. Students are almost as in the dark with Labour as with the Tories. The Labour Party has promised to ‘break down barriers to opportunity at every stage’. They have not, however, outlined what this actually means for higher education. In their shiny new manifesto, little more is said as the party makes sweeping promises to improve access to higher education, teaching standards and the funding settlement model. Hardly the fleshed-out vision students deserve. We are either ignored or taken for granted.

Students have been categorically undervalued and belittled by the UK’s largest parties. It is hard to believe either of them bear the wellbeing and interests of students in mind during policymaking. This needs to change. The dissonance between student voting power and the political attention paid to them cannot be left to fester.

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