The moribund majority rule

April 25, 1997

Students have the voting clout to decide the winner of some marginal seats but it seems that their apathy could result in them wasting the opportunity. THES reporters profile seven hotspots.

THE NUMBER of students living in Edgbaston matches almost exactly the constituency's Conservative majority.

If Labour won over the 4,400 or so students from Birmingham University, the 500-plus from the University of Central England and the 280 at Newman College of Higher Education living in residences it would clinch the seat.

Add the large number of academics with Edgbaston homes and the few hundred students in private accommodation and no candidate should be able to keep higher education off their agenda.

Whether this will be enough to spark political excitement among Edgbaston's student voters, who are mostly preoccupied first-years, remains to be seen.

The constituency, in the south-west of the city, has a solidly middle-class core which has voted for the veteran Tory MP Dame Jill Knight since 1966. But alongside the big houses and leafy streets are inner city estates blighted by unemployment and poverty.

Boundary changes this election have added Bartley Green ward, once expected to boost the 4,307 Conservative majority. Now voters in its new estates and former council houses are not seen as such a good Tory bet. Andrew Marshall, who has succeeded Dame Jill, said its influence would be "neutral".

Ask him about the general picture in the constituency and he turns a little pink. "We have various statistics, they show it's close."

Mr Marshall, an Orkney banker who graduated in history from Robinson College, Cambridge, says education issues in the constituency, which has a high quotient of independent and grammar schools, focus more on secondary and primary levels.

Students appeared apathetic and universities could be working harder to improve their own finances. "They are big organisations which have to look at how they run themselves," he says.

On the doorstep, Labour's Gisela Stuart hears more from academics worried about the job market than any students' concerns.

As an MA student at the university, studying pension law, and a lecturer in law at Worcester College of Technology, she has an empathy for students.

"For a lot of people, the age 18 and 19 isn't when they want higher education, they want it later," she says. "An individual learning account is the way forward."

The Conservative and Labour student associations at Birmingham University have similar memberships of about 100. Liberal Democrats, which polled just under 12 per cent of the vote last time, have somewhat fewer, in spite of pledges by the candidate, Jock Gallagher, for "education free at the point of delivery".

"It should be there like health, for everyone to rely on," he says.

Of course students agree, says Dunstan Hope, vice president (communications) at the university. But most are disillusioned by politicians of every party.

"Exams start on May 12," he says. "They are probably going to be the biggest single factor deciding whether people vote."

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