Hair and taxes evade trimming

April 18, 1997

Seats of learning:THES reporters profile the key constituencies around the country where the votes of academics and students can make a crucial difference to the outcome of the election

THE proverbial academics' hair-cut seemed the most pressing higher education issue on the campaign trail of Colchester's Liberal Democrat candidate this week. Bob Russell, information officer at Essex University for 11 years, is keen to play up his higher education sympathies. And if that means keeping his mop-top hair-do against the judgement of his party agent, then so be it. "It's a good haircut," insists Mr Russell. "It fits in well on the campus. In fact it's rather modest by the university's standards."

But Mr Russell's agent has a point. Higher education is not top of the agenda in Colchester. "One constituent I door-stepped said he didn't care what party I was from," admits Mr Russell. "He said he was going to vote for me because I support Colchester United. Another bloke said the Lib Dems were actually going to spend too much on education," he adds incredulously. "But later we saw a vandalised Liberal Democrat poster with the logo crossed-out and 'Labour' written on it, spelt L-A-B-O-R, so I guess we need that extra penny on income tax."

The Conservative candidate, Stephen Shakespeare, is frank in dismissing the higher education vote. "I'm not saying it's not an important issue, but I'm not up on it at all," he admits. "Some students have asked me about grants but it really hasn't been a doorstep issue. It means little in terms of winning or losing this seat."

But Mr Shakespeare is defending a notional majority of only 4,500 in the distinctly urban new seat. Based on 1992's results, the Liberal Democrats have 33 per cent of the vote and Labour has 24 per cent. On current polls, the race will be extremely close.

Colchester is on the Association of University Teachers' list of 16 marginal "target seats" as part of its Vote Higher Education Campaign. The Colchester Institute, which has almost 1,000 students in higher education and almost 10,000 in further education, is in the centre of town.

Essex University is not in Colchester - its sprawling campus sits about 100 yards over the new boundary in the relatively safe Tory seat of Essex North. But as Bob Russell in his university press officer guise points out, the university has 5,400 students and 1,400 staff, of which about 330 are academics. And, Russell says, it is the second largest employer in Colchester.

"The image of Essex University as a hotbed of political activity is out of date because the students are too busy working hard," Mr Russell said. "But higher education is a major part of the community. I'd hope I'd get at least some votes for being 'the university guy'."

Rod Green, the Labour candidate, insists that the people of Colchester do care about higher education. "It has been raised on the doorstep," he says. "Parents with primary school kids ask me about funding, and students ask me about grants."

KEY SEATS IN GREAT BRITAIN

(MAP NOT AVAILABLE ON THIS DATABASE)

* This map shows the 40 seats likely to be of greatest interest to the academic community at the general election. There are four criteria for selection, with some seats such as Bath, Norwich South and Rochdale falling into more than one category.

* The Association of University Teachers selected 16 seats, mostly marginals in or close to universities, on which to target activity during the election. Examples from this list include Colchester, Cardiff North, Southampton Test and Birmingham Selly Oak. The other main lecturers' union, Natfhe, has not carried out a parallel exercise.

* The ten seats with the highest proportion of student voters, based on 1991 census figures. These give proportions defined as "students" on the basis of all those aged over 16 who are in full-time education - not an exact measure, but the best indication we have, particularly in the absence of any constituency by constituency figure for academics as a disparate group. Seats in this category include Glasgow Kelvinside, Newcastle Central and Sheffield Hallam.

* Seats of particular interest because of personalities involved. This group includes the constituencies of Gillian Shephard, education and employment secretary, David Blunkett, shadow education secretary, and other figures with higher education associations, such as Alan Howarth, former Conservative higher education minister and now Labour candidate, and Jeff Rooker, former shadow spokesman on higher education.

* Interesting marginals. Seats not quite falling into any of the above categories, but with some further and higher education interest. Examples include Plymouth Sutton, which would certainly have been on any Natfhe list paralleling the AUT's, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland for the statistical quirk of having precisely the median level of students and the multiple-party battles in Inverness and Ceredigion.

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