New analysis by Professor Stephen Fisher, from Oxford’s Department of Sociology, confirms that the student vote responds to political parties' policies on tuition fees and it could tip the balance of power at the general election in 2015.
The student vote swung towards the Liberal Democrats in 2001, 2005 and 2010 and is set to swing towards Labour at the 2015 election, which could affect the result in around 10 seats, says the report which is published and co-authored by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).
The report is based on a statistical analysis of publicly available data, mostly from the British Election Study, and qualitative interviews with university and local authority personnel on registration processes.
It concludes that the student vote could be pivotal to the success of political parties in the next election. This is because of the close opinion polls, a fall in student support for the Liberal Democrats and UKIP’s relative lack of success among students. The report adds that since the last election, the student vote has moved towards the Greens as well as Labour and the chances of the Green Party retaining their one seat or even managing to win a second seat seems likely to depend upon how students vote.
Professor Stephen Fisher said: 'It is remarkable the extent to which changes in the student vote at elections since 1997 reflect changes in the perceived generosity of party policy for all three main Westminster parties. But if anything, the student vote seems to have reacted more strongly to apparent breaches of promise.
'Support for Labour among students dropped dramatically in 2005 after they were seen to go back on their 2001 manifesto promise not to introduce "top-up" fees. Similarly, Liberal Democrat support for tuition fees while in government despite pre-election pledges to vote against them seems to have led to an even greater fall in the Lib Dem student vote than for Britain as a whole. This has been witnessed in surveys since 2010 and also in the European Parliament election results this year. If this trend is maintained to next year’s general election, the Liberal Democrats are likely to do noticeably worse in constituencies with large numbers of student voters.'
Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and co-author of the report, said: 'Our new analysis suggests students' votes are swayed by student issues, particularly university funding. But for students to make a difference, they must register to vote, turn out to vote and live in marginal constituencies. The likelihood is that these factors will determine the outcome in only around ten constituencies. But, if the opinion polls are a guide to the next election, then students could just swing the overall result and hold the keys to power.'
According to the report, the British Election Study Internet Panel Survey shows a more recent collapse in Liberal Democrat support among students, from 44 per cent in 2010 to 13 per cent in 2014. Students are more likely to vote for the Labour Party than for any other party and Labour are more popular among students than among the rest of the population.
Students are only half as likely to support UKIP as the rest of the population (7 per cent versus 15 per cent). At the 2014 European Parliament elections, students were much more likely to vote Green than UKIP (25 per cent versus 11 per cent). Although many students who voted for the Green Party intend to support Labour at the 2015 general election, students could help the Green Party retain their one Parliamentary seat of Brighton Pavilion and students are likely to be crucial in their quest to win Bristol West.
Many parliamentary seats with a high density of students are 'safe' seats, which limits their electoral power. However, at the next election, differential voting behaviour by students could alter the outcome in up to a dozen seats, mainly to the benefit of Labour and to the detriment of the Liberal Democrats. Depending on the balance of support for the main parties overall, the Conservatives might lose some seats to Labour as a result of the student vote but it may simultaneously win one or two due to a heavier fall in the Liberal Democrat vote in student areas, says the report.