Going for the student vote: Postgraduates matter more

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In a politics dominated by efforts to chase the grey vote it is nice to see a bit of electoral competition at the other end of the generational divide. As Labour weighs up what to do about tuition fees it might seem that a big offer to students could yield important gains next year at the general election, as well as shoring up any post-2010 support tempted to return to the Lib Dem fold. 40.5% of students voted Lib Dem at the last election. That betrayed generation could be an important constituency if they turn out for Labour next time around.graduates.jpg

Channel 4 Fact Check noted that the student vote accounted for 3.2% of the Lib Dem vote in 2010, but that this was clustered in constituencies with universities, enabling students to pack a notable electoral punch in the first past the post system. Channel 4 identifies 8 Lib Dem seats with especially high student populations, amongst them Clegg’s own in Sheffield Hallam. Four of these were won from Labour in 2005 in campaigns focusing upon tuition fees and the Iraq war.

There is, however, a problem with all this talk of chasing ‘the student vote’. Students don’t stay students for long. By the time a Labour government is elected and a new system put in place the current student generation (I amongst them) will have graduated, at least £27,000 of fee debt hanging over our heads. If Labour goes in to the next election promising £6,000 fees it is hard to see how that will win over any current undergraduates. The beneficiaries will almost all be under 18 and not have votes. Those who do currently comprise the student vote will have a very different take. If anything it would seem like a further injustice: not only the first year groups to pay fees three times higher than those slightly older than us, but also belonging to a small cohort paying fees higher than those below us as well.

One solution is a graduate tax and abolition of all existing loans. Another is the kind of messy ‘phased’ system proposed by the Lib Dems at the last election (see page 39). But there would be a far more striking way to comprehensively win over the entire student demographic.

Many graduates have gone into masters programmes in response to the weak jobs market. But there is considerable injustice in a system where there are few bursaries and where fees range from £3,400 to £31,738 (the average was £6,184 in 2011/12). Students who cannot meet those costs upfront or secure bank loans at market rates are denied the opportunity to gain qualifications that are increasingly a pre-requisite in some fields, and a normal part of an undergraduate degree in many other European countries. The argument for some sort of standard national system is clear.

Cost is the obvious objection, but such a system would not need to be on the same scale as the undergraduate loan book and would not even have to provide guaranteed loans (new loans could be rationed based on academic merit or need). What is striking at the moment is the lack of any form of national provision for taught masters courses at all, with a patchwork of university administered grants and personal funding and all its associated irregularities and injustices in place. Some sort of national provision for post-graduate studies would appeal to the broadest possible swathe of the student vote, taking in all current undergraduates looking to their prospects after graduation and post-graduate students planning further study in an enthusiastic pro-Labour bandwagon. The key to this demographic is to promise more opportunity ahead rather than limited offers to the generation behind. It is the post-graduate angle that would mobilise the biggest range of the student vote.

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