With the starter gun just fired for the general election, we will have six weeks of being bombarded by flyers, media and conversations trying to influence our thinking and aiming to capture our votes. But you can read on because I am not about to add to the forthcoming cacophony of viewpoints on the best political party to vote for. That’s for others – I will remain staunchly politically neutral.
I do, however, want to set out for you the two roles we are encouraging colleges to fulfil during this election campaign. They relate, on the one hand, to the purpose of colleges as civic resources and community-centred organisations. On the other hand, they are about the role colleges play in helping young people and adults become informed and engaged participants in our democracy – a truly worthy ambition for any educational establishment, in my view. Perhaps one of the most important ways colleges can help people to become true citizens.
Conservative manifesto: T levels and IoTs
Labour manifesto: Ofsted and adult education
Lib Dem manifesto: GCSE resits and funding
Parity of esteem
This week, I wrote to college leaders to encourage them to organise a local hustings event. Colleges are ideal places for candidates to share their views, debate key issues and be accountable to the local electorate. Indeed, some of the best hustings in local constituencies will be run by colleges and led by students, and the involvement of local print and broadcast media will allow others to benefit as well. Not only are colleges natural places for these events, but the engagement of students always provides for a lively, informed and passionate exchange of views. Views from across the political spectrum, I should add, because the commonly held mythology that all students are hard Left has little basis in reality.
At the Association of Colleges, we have keenly backed the extension of the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds for the past couple of years. Our reasoning was based on the belief that being enfranchised at 16 would encourage young people to look to their college or school sixth form for impartial information and debate about politics. With the right support, young people at this age would start to understand that politics can be accessible and should be taken seriously. Clearly the voting age is still 18 for this election, but a college hustings is still a great place for proper political engagement for people of all ages.
The second role for colleges is to support voter registration. With around 700,000 young students, many reaching 18 during their second or third year and with around 1.5 million adult students, colleges reach a lot of potential voters. They also help reach a very diverse group of people, with high proportions from black, Asian and/or minority-ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and those from communities not traditionally represented at a national level.
In September, 15 colleges in London worked closely with the Greater London Authority in a non-party-political campaign to encourage registration. The feedback we have had from the colleges was that students were pleased to be nudged and lots of interesting conversations have been generated. I’ve no doubt also that this and other efforts across the country by colleges, as well as others, have contributed to the headlines this week of a record surge in registrations by younger voters. There is a long way to go, though, with the Electoral Reform Society stating that there are around 9.4 million people unregistered. People have until 26 November to register, so there is still time.
At the AoC, we will launch our own election manifesto in the next few days, with five headline pledges we will ask every party to sign up to. We want every candidate to be asked to make those pledges as well, from every party, because colleges are a vital part of our society as well as central to our economic development. Having MPs who understand that is vital to our ambition that the neglect colleges have faced from government in the last decade will never be able to happen again.
It’s in all our interests for every citizen to be registered, to be encouraged to vote and to be able to find ways to make sure they are informed and knowledgeable about what the candidates stand for. I’m proud that colleges can help to be part of the drive for a strong, participative democracy.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges