Parties must come clean on fees to win student vote

Just a third of 16-25 year olds voted at the 2005 general election; as we approach polling day the main parties are attempting to engage young people.

Little more than a third of 18-25 year olds voted at the 2005 general election and as we approach polling day attempts from each of the major parties to engage young people and students still leaves a lot to be desired. Candidates are finally waking up to the fact that they must make a clear offer to students and young people if they want to win their votes and we are putting their student offer under the microscope.

As president-elect of NUS, I will take office at what many consider to be the most significant period for higher education in a generation. This is obviously an honour, but very sobering. Recent cuts to the higher education budget, coupled with the ongoing independent review of fees, chaired by Lord Browne, means that the landscape of higher education will come under scrutiny over the coming months.

Few people need reminding that when the Labour Government attempted to lift fees back in 2004, it was met with a huge backbench rebellion and a landslide Blair majority was brought to within five votes of defeat. This time we have mobilised students in record numbers to prevent their interests being trampled on and to prevent politicians selling off their future.

The new Browne review was launched with little fanfare back in November 2009, but with broad terms of reference, looking at the full parameter of higher education funding and is likely to make recommendations about the future of tuition fees, currently capped at £3,225.

Time has not quelled public scepticism and opposition to fees. Indeed, the most recent public opinion polls show nine out of ten voters oppose higher fees. And yet, students may well raise an eyebrow at the convenient timing of the Browne Review. Not likely to report back to the new Government until the autumn, the review has provided cover for politicians seeking to avoid questions about the future of fees.

Neither of the main parties have offered much by way of detail in the manifestos; Labour outbid the Tories on a commitment with student numbers offering 20,000 fully funded places to the opposition’s 10,000, but beyond that there isn’t too much to say. The Liberal Democrats – who had previously held a steadfast commitment to abolishing fees – have now waivered, and would not be able to complete their ambition during the next Parliament.

Given the absence of discussion, students may well feel that politicians have done them a disservice, and I would agree. I simply do not see how it is acceptable for political parties to expect votes from students, when so many politicians are trying to duck questions about the review and critical questions about the future of the fee cap. But students are getting riled, and the indications this time are that they will be arriving at the ballot box in greater numbers, with more than two thirds planning to cast their vote. They will be putting candidates under scrutiny like never before.

To aid this, NUS has launched a simple pledge under the slogan ‘Vote for Students‘; we have asked candidates from all parties to make a simple commitment – that if elected they would vote against any proposed increase in fees during the next Parliament. The pledge has been incredibly successful with over 700 candidates pledging their support. Almost 200 Labour candidates, 300 Liberal Democrats, and just 10 from the Conservative Party have signed. Other minority parties have also tapped into students’ anger with the political class.

With everything to play for come polling day, the student vote could be decisive in dozens of seats across the UK. NUS is preparing the biggest get out the vote campaign in our history, and will be informing students whether their candidates have signed our pledge or not. If politicians feel they can ignore students, and not pledge to vote against any proposals for higher fees, they should expect to be unceremoniously punished at the ballot box on polling day.

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