The importance of the youth vote in the UK: Keeping higher education on the political agenda [despite Brexit]

By Emma Sabzalieva and Andrew Gunn

 2017 may be remembered as the year in which young people in the UK – those aged 18-24, the age bracket that sends more people into higher education – returned to the ballot box. Turned off by voting in recent years towards single issue campaigning, the Brexit referendum in 2016 was the first sign that the youth vote was back, with nearly two thirds of 18-24 year olds having their say. In the 2017 national elections, over half of 18-24s cast a vote – which may not sound much until you put it into perspective of the much lower turnout of previous years.

A key reason that young voters have mobilized politically is tuition fees. With an ever-growing number of young people entering higher education, and with fees having increased nine-fold since being introduced in 1998, government policy towards fees really matters. Policy positioning on fees can tell us a lot, not just about a party’s attitude towards young people but about their vision for the country.

The Conservatives are facing the electoral consequences of the UK electorate now having not just more graduates – but more indebted graduates. And these groups aren’t voting Conservative. Little wonder, then, that higher education funding policy featured in the 2017 national election. As the party conference season in the United Kingdom draws to a close, higher education remains on the political agenda.

Political party conference season

Party conferences in the UK are significant as spaces for new policies and ideas to be tested out for the first time in front of a broadly supportive audience. Additionally, the keynote speech by the party leaders is so important that it can make or break a leader’s reputation and credibility. This year, the speech of Conservative leader and Prime Minister Theresa May was beset with many difficulties while the speech by the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was well received by his party.

The Labour Party, which has moved a little further to the left under its current leader, called at its conference for the renationalization of some industries which were privatized by the Thatcher Conservative government in the 1980s. Even the right-wing tabloid newspaper The Sun commented that Labour had an excellent conference, although the same paper calls his vision for Britain “vacuous and economically insane”.

Vying for the youth vote

The Labour Party leader’s speech caps a memorable year for British politics, one in which it has become acceptable again in mainstream politics to talk about a bigger state that could, for example, take back on responsibility for direct funding of higher education. At the 2017 general election the Labour party pledged to abolish tuition fees. This feature of the party’s platform resonated strongly with voters, particularly younger voters.


Even more significant than increased youth turnout was the very specific swing towards the Labour Party, which captured 65% of young voters compared to just 19% for the Conservative Party. In comparison, the overwhelming victory of Tony Blair in 1997 for the Labour Party – often put down to the contribution of younger voters – took 53% of the youth vote. A recent article provides an analysis of the reasons why young people are voting more, and why they have become more attracted to the Labour Party.

During her conference speech, Theresa May announced that we “have listened and we have learned. So we will undertake a major review of university funding and student financing”.

There has already been a significant amount of higher education policy activity under Theresa May’s Premiership –  although this is often hard to see with Brexit understandably gaining the most national attention. The Higher Education and Research Bill made its way into legislation just before this year’s national elections (despite our prediction that it would fall victim to the politics of uncertainty that still harangues the UK).

This paves the way for the Teaching Excellence Framework (very recently renamed the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework) that seeks to assess the quality of teaching much as the Research Excellence Framework does for research in British higher education institutions.

We foresee further policy change ahead. May’s promised funding review creates uncertainty as it raises questions about the whole future of the current student finance system when graduates repay their fees through an income contingent loan.

In response to the politically unpopular rising costs of a degree in the UK, the Conservative government also announced it was abandoning plans to rise this year’s undergraduate tuition from £9,250 to £9,500 and has increased the repayment threshold on student loans to £25,000. Both of these moves are designed to prevent an undergraduate degree from becoming more expensive.

Keeping higher education on the political agenda

We argue that the funding review is driven in part to address the major electoral problem the Conservatives have with students and recent graduates, that is, the youth vote.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are seen as responsible for trebling fees from £3,000 to £9,000 when they were in a Coalition government together between 2010 and 2015. More generally, it is the Conservatives that young people also blame for the current economic policy of austerity, which has been seen to hit the younger generation disproportionately harder than their more senior counterparts.

In a high participation higher education system, all of this means that the issue of who pays for university – and how much they pay – is a high stakes debate. Winning over young graduate voters will be an important part of a future Conservative election strategy, and with this group of voters in the electorate growing all the time, they become ever more important.

Whilst we see the youth vote as critical to shaping higher education policy in the UK, it is not the only factor that needs to be taken into consideration. There will be consequences to the freeze on tuition fees for 2018/19 as universities will face a reduction in their future income, and we have yet to see how they will react to this. And in all of this political debate, the role and importance of other routes into higher education – through part-time study, through colleges – has been woefully neglected.

Liz Marr of the UK’s Open University says “the big story here is that actually there isn’t a funding review. May mentioned it in her speech but [universities minister] Jo Johnson is saying well, it’s always under review.” With no guarantees that tuition fee increases won’t slip back onto the agenda in a year’s time, is there enough in May’s speech and in recent Conservative policy to woo (back) the youth vote?

Note: References to tuition fees and funding in the UK context apply to England and Northern Ireland, where jurisdiction over higher education lies with the British parliament. Fee and funding policies for Scotland and Wales are set by their respective national assemblies, and can be quite different from policy that applies only to England and Northern Ireland, especially in Scotland. We use the terms “UK” and “Britain” in the article as many of the trends we discuss have nationwide relevance.


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