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5 July 2017updated 04 Sep 2021 6:23pm

Students heeded calls to engage with democracy, now we’re being told we got it wrong

Students are people too. We vote, we care about the same things as others and we make our voices heard.

By Richard Brooks

Lots of things are said about students, on a regular basis. Rarely are they good; that we’re lazy and apathetic, entitled snowflakes, overeducated and under-prepared for the rigmaroles of life.

This has reached a fever pitch post-election, during which it is widely acknowledged that the youth and student vote played a large role in the surprise outcome. It’s estimated there was a 13 percentage point increase in under-25s voting in this General Election compared to the last. In student heavy areas – Canterbury, Devon and Sheffield Hallam, for instance, we played a decisive role.

This has led to a number of retributions in the aftermath of the surprise hung parliament. Society had begged, pleaded young people to engage with its democratic processes, only for us to find that when we did, we were doing it wrong.

So now the din of battle has died down in the distance, and we all start gearing up for what could well be another general election around the corner, I’d like to unpick some of the things that have been said in the last few weeks

1.      It’s unfair for students to vote in their university constituencies

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The most mendacious claims – pushed by the likes of Andrea Leadsom and Philip Davies – were that some students “double voted” in their family and student constituencies. This Trump-esque claim is the democratic equivalent of losing a game of football and blaming the referee. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t find any evidence to substantiate this claim.

Linked to this, there have been ideas put forward for students to only be allowed to vote in their family constituencies, rather than being given the choice of where they study. This ignores the £73bn that Universities UK estimates universities add to UK economy, the millions of lives changed and communities improved by colleges, and the untold positive social impacts that students have on their communities each and every day. It ignores that their student constituency is where they, y’know, live.

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But more than this, it is simply saying; students aren’t people like other constituents. Because you voted the wrong way, you don’t deserve the opportunity at all. It’s no wonder that only 12 per cent of students we surveyed before the election think that politicians value the views of young people; it would seem to be because many simply don’t.

2.      Students were ‘bribed’

There’s a couple of things to this; you say bribe, I say “putting forward a manifesto that speaks to young people”. The concept of giveaways in political party manifestos is hardly new, except it is, because it used to be solely for the elderly. This doesn’t work on a more fundamental level anyway, as we’ve shown time and time again that students don’t vote based on self-interest, but on the sort of society they want to see.

When we at the National Union of Students surveyed students before the election, we’ve found that they aren’t obsessed with niche concerns or self-interested – they give importance to the same issues that the rest of wider society does. Just before the election over half (57 per cent) of students identified the NHS as the biggest issue in deciding their vote, with cost of living and education chosen by approximately a third each, and Brexit and student funding chosen by approximately a quarter each.

3.      This was Revenge of the Youth

Firstly, this is not Kill Bill. Revenge doesn’t look like under-25s queuing up to get into their polling station. But don’t get me wrong; young people have every right to be angry, and to demand change at the ballot box.

This is the first generation who will earn less in real terms than generation before it (according to the Intergenerational Commission), while the average age of first-time home buyers is now 33 (according to the English Housing Survey 14/15)

Over half of students fear for their career opportunities, even while nearly four in 10 say their educational opportunities are increasing. And more widely they are pessimistic about fairness and wealth inequality, jobs and economy.

Once again, students are urged to change society by partaking in its democracy. Yet when we do so, we are criticised for it.

4.      Students just don’t understand

We’ve been hoodwinked, tricked I tell you. We can’t be trusted to make informed choices about our lives and rest of society.

Aside from the fact that this has been an argument employed to stop (in no particular order) working class people, women and the BME community from voting in the first place, this seems like a particularly foolish argument. The notion that “if only people were smart enough, to understand (my view), everything would be fine” doesn’t feel particularly democratic.

Despite all this, 69 per cent of students we surveyed told us that voting in a general election will make a difference to them and their peers.  Despite all this, youth voter turnout is the highest it’s been in a generation. And despite all this, my generation are more determined, not less – to vote for the sort of society that is worthy of our futures.

So, the results are in, students are people too. We vote, we care about the same things as others and we make our voices heard.

The challenge for our political leaders, whenever the next general election happens, is to show young people and students that there is something worth voting for.

Because we won’t settle for less.

Richard Brooks is the outgoing vice president for union development at the National Union of Students.