What Does the UK General Election Mean for Students?

Jun 8, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

The people of Britain head to the polls today to pick a new government.  If you’re not up on your current events you may be asking yourself: “Wait a second...didn’t this just happen?” Indeed, while just two years have passed since the last election, a lot has changed in that time. (Did someone say “Brexit”?) As a result, Prime Minister Theresa May called for an early election, AKA “snap election,” which can be held if enough members of the country’s lawmakers -- two-thirds to be exact -- agree to it.  And while forecasts vary wildly regarding who will win and by how much, experts agree that the results will play a huge role in the UK’s transition out of the EU.

Caught in the crossfires of it all? The UK’s significant student population. Here’s a closer look at where higher education factors into today’s vote.

What Domestic Students Need to Know

There’s no arguing that the majority of Britain’s young people feel disenfranchised by the country’s increasingly Conservative sway. However, these same people are also uniquely positioned to make a difference in today’s election. Says Quartz, “Whether the Conservative government wins by a landslide, by a small majority, or it loses its majority in Parliament (a prospect that sent the pound tumbling) is dependent on youth turnout. In short, the future of the Britain will be decided by its most disillusioned voters.”

But being fed up with rising tuition fees, lack of government funding, loss of housing benefits, and deteriorating job markets is not a reason not to vote. Why? Because we’ve all seen how that story ends. Pollsters predict that if youth turnout is as low as it was in 2015’s election, then the Conservative party will win in a landslide -- meaning more of the same moving forward. If, however, the UK’s two million-plus students do turn up and vote, they could make their dissenting voices heard toward greater cross-party balance.

So which parties believe what when it comes to higher education? One of the biggest differences between the parties pertains to higher education tuitions. While fee structures are expected to remain consistent under both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, the left-leaning Labour Party has pledged to completely abolish tuition fees and write off existing student debt -- in accordance with its viewpoint that higher education should be free because it’s a public service for the “collective good.”

And while all parties acknowledge the importance of increasing science and education funding, the Conservative Party has designated the smallest increase in spending (2.4 percent by 2027) to this area when compared to the platforms of the Labour Party (3 percent by 2030) and the Liberal Democrats (doubl[ing] innovation and research funding across the economy” as a “long-term goal.”)

What International Students Need to Know

International students, meanwhile, also have plenty to be concerned about regarding one of the biggest issues in today’s election: immigration.  Additionally, universities, faculty and staff, researchers and domestic students are also facing major uncertainty when it comes to whether the UK will remain open to international exchange.

Explains Digital Journal, “Many universities are reliant upon overseas students coming to study, and this represents a key source of income as well as helping to expand the knowledge base. Many universities are concerned with the Conservative Party plans to restrict immigration and to incorporate student numbers into the readjusted figures. The Liberal Democrats and Labour, in contrast, encourage overseas students as temporary visitors to the U.K.”

In other words, the difference between a soft line and a hard line on Brexit -- and the future of higher education mobility -- may well depend on how the election goes.

If all goes as planned today by Theresa May and the Conservative Party, the election will solidify and strengthen the Tories’ hold. Reveals BBC News, “When Theresa May called the election, polls showed she was likely to win a landslide - and cement her political power. But things move quickly in politics.”  Well-positioned to upset this anticipated outcome? The UK’s student population. In fact, says Yahoo! News, “The polls predicting a big Tory win assume that many of the young people who have registered won't show up on the day. Those who see a much closer outcome assume most of those who have registered will vote.”

The takeaway? While Brexit itself is largely considered to be a foregone conclusion with all parties vowing to move forward with it regardless of the election result, the approach may be very different, depending on who’s occupying seats at the negotiating table. By showing up and voting in today’s election, the UK’s student population just may become a deciding factor in who that will be.

Read more about studying in the UK.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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