Students face being "screwed over for generations" unless they ensure that politicians are "terrified" of their influence at the ballot box, student leaders have warned.
Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, issued the rallying cry at the NUS annual conference in Gateshead last week (see box below). He was echoed by Aaron Porter, NUS president-elect, who says in an interview in this week's Times Higher Education that parliamentary candidates who fail to sign a pledge opposing any rise in tuition fees should not expect to receive a single vote from students.
Their comments came after a poll of 14,000 students found that a third are planning to vote Conservative, with a fifth backing the Liberal Democrats and a fifth Labour.
The Tories are the front-runners at 20 of the 30 universities surveyed by polling firm High Fliers Research, while Labour is the top choice at seven and the Lib Dems at two.
The results, published last week, come as a surprise as the Lib Dems remain the only mainstream party to have pledged to phase out tuition fees. In addition, just 10 Tory candidates have signed the NUS petition against any increase in fees, compared with 300 Lib Dem and 200 Labour candidates.
The survey's findings suggest the continuation of a trend identified in a separate analysis of student polls between 2004 and 2008.
The study by Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at the University of Essex, found that while students polled over the period were most likely to back the Lib Dems, support for the party fell over the period while backing for the Tories grew.
This week, however, Professor Whiteley said that Labour had improved its rating among students going into the election campaign, edging ahead of the Tories.
Speaking before the release of a new analysis based on surveys by Opinionpanel Research, he added that students remained "significantly more likely to support the Lib Dems than voters in general".
The NUS has identified 20 key battlegrounds where it thinks the student vote may prove decisive on 6 May (see map above right).
In the previous general election, Mr Streeting said, "many seats with high concentrations of students were widely recognised to have been swayed by the student vote".
However, Stephen Williams, the Lib Dem higher education spokesman and MP for Bristol West, said the NUS' analysis was "simplistic".
"You have to look at the combination of the student and academic vote," he said. "There's a high turnout among academics, and a lot of students vote in their home constituencies. The turnout among students is also lower than among the general electorate."
THE's latest reader poll, which comes midway through the election campaign, suggests that the Lib Dems are winning the battle for the academy's vote (see story, right). Labour is second in the poll, with the Tories third.
Marginal seats in which the combined student-academic vote could make a difference, and which are being targeted by the Lib Dems, include Bristol North West, Durham, Hull North, Norwich South, Sheffield Central and Swansea West.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "Universities are located in more than 100 constituencies, and ... half of those are marginals where the election will be decided. There are more than 370,000 people employed in higher education and almost 2.5 million students. No one is suggesting that they will all vote on a single issue, but investment in a strong, flexible and high-quality higher education system may feature in their thinking."
ROCK THE VOTE: Streeting's sweeteners to galvanise students into action
Wes Streeting is in his element at a packed fringe meeting at the National Union of Students' annual conference, galvanising students into action as part of what the union describes as one of its most successful campaigns.
Dashing around the room with a roving mike, "Jeremy Kyle-style", the NUS president swaps sticks of rock for students' comments on how they are voting and why.
"How many of you haven't registered to vote yet? Don't be shy," he cajoles. "Come and see me at the end. We will print off a voter-registration form, get you to fill it in, buy a stamp for you and send it to your electoral-registration officer, because that's how much we care about this."
The Vote for Students campaign has already forced many politicians "out of hiding" on the issue of tuition fees, he says, but for the campaign truly to deliver, students must turn "all the threatening" into action: in short, they must emulate the blue-rinse brigade.
"You won't see pensioners being ignored at this election because it doesn't matter how old or frail they are, they will find a way to the polling station on voting day," he says. "The 'grey vote' is powerful, it is so influential. And the student vote could be the same."
In another session, video messages are played from the three main party leaders, which receive a mixed reception from the 1,000 delegates in attendance.
In a comment that will do little to win student votes, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, tells delegates that top-up fees "have to stay".
His promise that the Tories will "help students in so many other ways", including launching a website, is met with laughter and jeers.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg musters more support when he says his party will "resist, campaign against and vote against any lifting of (the fees) cap", while Gordon Brown's video is greeted with a mixture of applause and boos. The prime minister's final plea - "if you will support us in the weeks to come, I promise to spend every waking hour fighting for your future" - prompts shouts of "You liar!"
As part of our #loveHE campaign, Times Higher Education asked students at the NUS conference which political party "loves" higher education the most.
Watch their responses at: www.youtube.com/lovehecampaign
'GEEK THE VOTE' AND THE BATTLE OF BOSWORTH
Scientists are being urged to take their prospective parliamentary candidates to task over the next fortnight to ensure that they are taking science seriously as an election issue.
The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) is among several organisations and individuals pushing the issue as part of a campaign dubbed "geek the vote".
Three ministerial debates have been held, and the campaign is even fielding a parliamentary candidate. Michael Brooks, a consultant for New Scientist magazine, is standing in Bosworth, Leicestershire, under the auspices of the Science Party, which launched its manifesto this week.
The seat was chosen because the incumbent MP, Conservative David Tredinnick, is a supporter of complementary and alternative medicine, with a penchant for astrology.
Dr Brooks accused Mr Tredinnick of being "a ringleader in rubbishing the scientific process", but the Tory MP, who has held the seat for 23 years, responded in kind.
He said Dr Brooks "represents the worst kind of rigid-thinking scientist", adding that it was "a great compliment" that he and his supporters "feel so threatened by someone who supports ... acupuncture and homeopathy".
Nick Dusic, director of CaSE, urged scientists to raise "local and national issues relevant to science" with candidates in the run-up to the election on 6 May.
"Ask them about conditions in your labs or invite them to see what sort of research is being done in their constituency," he said.
He added that the campaign, which has as its mainstay a New Scientist blog, "The S-Word: The science of politics and vice versa", had pushed science up the political agenda.
"Science is an election issue," he said. "It is coming to prominence more than before, and we have seen a lot more detail and commitment in the main parties' manifestos than we have in the past."
He added that CaSE would shortly publish letters from each of the three main parties setting out their science policies in detail. He said that the Liberal Democrats and Labour had also pledged to release mini-manifestos on science.
Key battlegrounds: 20 areas where student vote may prove decisive