Next stop on the Voice of a Generation tour was Sheffield, home of steel, The Full Monty and Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency, among other things. Amidst the collapse of Liberal Democrat support among the youngest section of the electorate, Sheffield seemed the ideal place for us to learn more about those first-time voters currently in higher education, and particularly their views on tuition fees, housing, and opportunities for young people.
Speaking with a group of students in the union we found that, regardless of their own reasons for going to university, they were clear that the current system pushes people towards university when they may not want to go, or may not actually benefit from doing their chosen course. “A million people aren’t going to get graduate jobs” says Pete. “Where does that leave us after this? There’s a pressure.” Max explained that he felt there were very few options outside of going to university for him, saying that there “are just so few good jobs out there now”.
With tuition fees tripling it has given people more pause for thought, but in the world of work where an emphasis is placed on having a degree it is still seen as the default route to employment, even for jobs that traditionally didn’t require any higher education. As one participant noted: “in the past, for professions like nursing you didn’t need a degree, but now you do”.
With Ed Miliband’s announcement that Labour would cut tuition fees to £6,000 per year, did the students feel that this was a vote winner, or a waste of time? For Christy, it was very much the latter. He said the reason he was against the rise in tuition fees brought in in 2012 was that people felt betrayed by the Liberal Democrats, and the principle of raising the costs generally – whether the fees were tripled or doubled – missed the point.
Nick Clegg will certainly feel the pinch in May from a severe drop in student support, or the loss of “a generation of voters” as Hayley said. But speaking to a group of students in their shared house we discovered that it is the system for repaying the loans that was most important to them, rather than the actual sum. And while they felt that the new Labour policy might attract a few votes, it was highly unlikely to be a game-changer among first-time voters.
For those not yet at university, however, like the students from Barnsley College, the rise in tuition fees made them very concerned that they may not be able to afford to go to university even though they wanted to.
The conversation soon turned to people’s interest and involvement with politics. Yael, President of the University Student’s Union, highlighted the fact that politics on campus revolved primarily around single issue campaigns, which tended to receive a significant level of interest and support. “In terms of big activism on campus, you see it around the big issues” she said.Certainly, from speaking to people on and off-campus, students tended to feel more confident speaking about issues surrounding the university and decisions made by the student’s union, than they did about British politics in general.
“Politics isn’t glamourised enough – and it isn’t a simple yes/no vote, and I don’t think people know how it works” says Helena. Speaking about the European elections last May, and how they don’t appear to affect people, she said “voting is weather dependent. Last time it was raining, and no one could really be bothered to.”
There was a concern among some of the participants that the focus on politicians being media friendly detracts from policy decisions. Elina said “Nigel Farage comes across well in every interview, but his policies are awful”. While Yvette noted that younger people tend to listen to celebrities, using Russell Brand as an example: “he’s famous, and people are intrigued by what he has to say…who are the kids listening to? Celebrities”.
One question raised, during a serious discussion about the relative certainty of another coalition government forming after the General Election, was where exactly does the Deputy Prime Minister live if the PM is in No. 10 Downing Street? Not a chief concern of the group when it came to making their decision on whether to vote and who for, it did represent a wider point about British politics that we are coming across in most of our discussions with young members of the electorate – that there are seemingly basic questions that can’t be answered without a surprising amount of research.
On this note, the house was unanimously agreed that more needed to be done in schools to help people learn about the political system in this country.
Joe Cryer, 23, is research and communications assistant at British Future and is accompanying Daily Mirror reporter Helen Whitehouse on the Voice of a Generation tour