Voters in marginal seats fear local damage from university cuts and want government to intervene

Voters in 30 battleground “university constituencies” back government funding to protect universities from the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis, says a survey released today.

YouGov polled voters from the 30 most marginal seats where at least 10% were students. The survey, which includes 11 Conservative and 13 Labour seats, features four of the new “Blue Wall seats” – where the Conservatives took seats in Labour’s traditional heartlands – and two that went Conservative for the first time. It also includes the seats of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and science minister Amanda Solloway.

Over three-quarters of those polled said their local university was important in creating local jobs (76%) and important to the local economy (79%). While similar numbers said the local university was key to bringing outside investment to the local area (72%), and supplying key killed staff for local services likes school and hospitals (75%).

Despite the strong support for universities and recognition of their importance locally, the poll comes at a time when the government appears to be trying to restrict access to university. Both universities minister Michelle Donelan and education secretary Gavin Williamson have made speeches this month suggesting too many people go to university.

Demonstrating the local social and economic footprint of universities, a third of those in work (33%) said the local university was important to their own job. While over two-fifths (42%) said they knew someone who studied or worked at a local university, or whose employment depended at least in part on the university.

Two-thirds (66%) said they feared that there would be a negative impact on the local economy if student numbers dropped as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. While three-quarters (75%) feared a negative impact should a local university go bust. 

Overall, 55% of those polled said they would support a temporary increase in government financial support for the university or universities in their local area so they could maintain courses and jobs during the recovery from the coronavirus outbreak. Just one in five (20%) opposed the idea. 

Support for government intervention came from across the political spectrum with 56% of voters in Conservative-held seats and 53% of those in seats with Labour MPs wanting a temporary increase in support for their local institution. Reflecting the urgency of the situation, by nearly two to one (43% to 24%) voters want their local MP and other local politicians to campaign for increased support.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “This polling makes it clear just how big a footprint universities have in their communities. Voters in some of the most marginal seats in the UK rightly fear the impact that universities’ worsening finances will have both on their own jobs and the local economy.’

The government must now provide reassurances for universities and the local communities who depend on them. Report after report has warned about the coming financial crisis for universities, yet the government has refused to act.

The message from voters across the political divide is crystal clear on this issue. They want politicians to campaign for their local university to be safeguarded, and they want the government to step in and guarantee lost funding for universities so they can weather this crisis and lead the recovery.” 

A report from UCU in April warned of a £2.5bn loss in income for universities from a drop in student numbers, which would result in a £6bn hit for the economy. Earlier this week the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted that the pandemic would leave some universities struggling to survive

Last month UCU launched its Fund The Future campaign, which calls on the government to provide emergency support for universities to cover income lost due to the pandemic.

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