Here at the University of Edinburgh, freshers’ week has just seen a new cohort of students moving into the city. As older students jostled through freebie-stuffed stalls scrabbling for the newcomers’ attention, they might have noticed that amid the free pens and sweets, there were two new stalls in town. One said Yes, and the other No Thanks.
Polling by the youth market research agency YouthSight of 300 students in Scotland between September 1 and 4 found them to be far more likely to vote No on September 18, a repeat finding of similar polling in April 2014. While the student No vote in the YouthSight poll closely matches that of the general electorate at 46%, only 36% of students are in favour of independence.
While this is a relatively small sample – typically opinion polls will be closer to 1,000 respondents – quotas have been used to try to ensure the sample can be considered reflective of the UK’s full-time undergraduate population, according to gender, year of study, and university type.
With the wider polls so close, it’s still all to play for. The targeting of university induction week activities shows that both sides see the student vote as a constituency where potential supporters have yet to be mobilised.
Research has shown that students are more likely than most young people to be politically engaged – despite their age, they have higher social class backgrounds and access to higher education. The YouthSight polling suggests as many as 88% of eligible Scottish student electors intend to vote; roughly in line with the 91% we currently see in the wider electorate. So what chances do the rival teams on each stall have of attracting the student vote?
No vote support fallen, Yes still behind
Support for a No vote among students has fallen over the summer from 58% in April 2014, to 46% in September. But interestingly (and in contrast to what has been witnessed recently in national polls), support for Yes has remained relatively steady, with YouthSight’s April poll reporting 37% in favour of independence. This suggests a rise in students who are undecided – now at 18%. Yes remains behind but the gap appears to have narrowed to only 10 percentage points.
Possibly more worrying for the Yes side however is that only 26% of students, fewer than those currently intending to vote Yes, believe the result of the referendum will see Scotland becoming an independent country. A larger proportion – 38% – said that Scotland would remain part of the UK but be given greater autonomy. Another 12% said they expected there to be no change, and 8% foresaw Scotland stripped of some autonomous powers. It would appear that the odds are stacked against the Yes stall in this particular contest.
This may come to some as a surprise. While we have seen the very youngest electors in Scotland, (those aged 16 and 17-years-old) tending to favour a No vote, a far greater number of 18 to 24-year-olds have been found to be in favour of independence and Scottish Social Attitudes has consistently found them to be some of the most likely to support a Yes vote.
What’s driving union feeling?
We cannot know for sure what is making students buck this youth trend to favour a No vote, even if this support has fallen. It may simply reflect the fact that there will be students in Scotland who are eligible to vote, but who have come to study from areas in the rest of the UK and EU where we might expect to see more support for the union. These non-Scottish students, if they are EU or qualifying Commonwealth nationals, can vote if they are on the electoral roll in Scotland.
Students are also more likely than non-student young people to mix with people from across the globe in environments where internationalism is celebrated. Ideas built on concepts of nationalism may be less popular as a consequence, or at least have less resonance.
On a more practical level, there could also be concerns from students about university funding in an independent Scotland. It may be that the attitudes of lecturers are shaping students’ own views. A recent poll for the Times Higher Education found a majority of academics in Scotland intend to vote No, viewing their decision as being better for universities.
Equally, if they are thinking about careers (in particular, graduate professions), growing perceptions of economic uncertainty may play more of a role in the minds of these young people, steering them towards a No vote.
Not a lost cause
Does this mean that for the Yes campaign students are a lost cause? Despite the polling figures, there still appear to be opportunities for politicians and campaigners to engage more students in the vote. Given their youth, many are yet to have developed voting habits, party preferences, and set ideas about how they wish to see a country run.
Students can still be in the process of forming political opinions and identities, and as such may offer greater potential for the campaigns to influence their voting decisions. While YouGov polling at the time of the YouthSight fieldwork had 6% of the wider electorate as still undecided, the new YouthSight poll finds the figure to be far higher for students at 18%, suggesting all is not lost for the Yes side.
Often living away from home for the first time, students may be particularly susceptible to influence in the absence of family to shape their voting decision. Moreover, the high levels of residential mobility for students in September may have impacted on registration, and not all those who have answered the polls will necessarily have the chance to vote. In short: there could be time yet for a shift in opinion.
Students only make up a small proportion of the Scottish electorate – the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show there were about 167,840 UK students in Scotland in 2012-13, with another 18,640 EU students and 28,305 non-EU students. With 4.29m Scots registered to vote, the students are unlikely to decide the outcome of the result.
But given their educational experiences, these young people are likely to be Scotland’s future opinion leaders, influencers, and decision-makers. Whatever the outcome of the referendum it will be these individuals who shape Scotland’s politics in years to come – regardless of which stall they find more appealing this week.