Less than half of all Oxford University students are registered to vote in the May General Election, according to data published by OUSU.
Only 44 per cent of students have registered to vote across all colleges, meaning that 11,420 university members will be able to cast a ballot in May. 19 colleges have fewer students registered than the University average and only seven have more than half enrolled.
These poor registration levels will have spurred OUSU on in its voter registration week at the start of February. The worst ranked college was Green Templeton, with only 13 per cent of students registered. Wolfson topped the enrolment table with 65 per cent. Worcester led the pack of colleges with JCRs, as 55 per cent of its students signed up. Other high enrolling colleges were Somerville, Merton, and New, each with 53 per cent.
Opposition politicians, student leaders, and higher education experts have all criticised the government’s registration reforms. Critics argue that the changes, requiring every student to self-enrol online or through the post, have disenfranchised the young. The new individual voter registration system came in after the May 2014 local election under the coalition government. Previously, all eligible voters had to be registered by the ‘head of the household’ in which they resided. Colleges would undertake this for students, guaranteeing 100 per cent registration.
A BBC study in December 2014 suggested that though 87 per cent of voters have been automatically transferred under the new system, of the 13 per cent who have not the majority are students. Oxford is one of the areas in the UK worst affected by this, with 60 per cent of voters in Holywell and 40 per cent in Carfax no longer registered to vote.
Nick Hillman, director of the Oxford-based Higher Education Policy Institute, told Cherwell, “Students have as much right to be on the electoral roll as everyone else. It would be a tragedy if the new registration system weakened their voice to a whisper. Some universities have built electoral registration into their enrolment processes and some have found ways around the requirement for students to provide a National Insurance Number when registering. Such initiatives need to be spread more widely.
“The new system has some advantages over the old one, but it would be terrible if it led to young people’s views being ignored.”
Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, stated to Cherwell, “The government moved too fast introducing single voter registration and the outcome has been a catastrophy, with over a million voters falling off the register. In my constituency of Oxford East, we have been especially hit as the seat has one of the largest student populations in the country. The government should have put in more provisions to prevent this disenfranchisement.
“In this climate, it’s especially important that students and young people make their voices heard. I encourage students to check they are registered, and if not, do so.”
Smith, a former Work and Pensions secretary, also recommended making student enrolment and registration concurrent.
Luke Miller, St Peter’s JCR president, told Cherwell, “The changes to the voter registration rules have had a terrible effect on students nationwide and it is a scandal that the government has cynically allowed this to happen. St Peter’s students have clearly been hit hard by the changes.”
OUSU VP for Charities & Communities Ruth Meredith said at the OUSU Student Awards, “Not being registered to vote and not voting keeps us quiet. It allows a minority to decide on what should be important, instead of hearing a diverse cacophony of voices.”
The government, though, remains committed to the reforms. A £10m fund was announced in December 2014 to tackle low student voter registration. The Cabinet Office told Cherwell, “It’s more important than ever that students take ownership of their own vote. If you want to vote in the constituency where you study, you will have to register at gov.uk/register-to-vote. The Government is working with the NUS and other student organisations to help spread the message about the importance of being on the register, and how to do it.”
A spokesperson for the Deputy Prime Minister told Cherwell that the data published by OUSU failed to take into account students who may have registered at home