Student debt is, once again, pledge fodder as politicians jostle for power. Conservative leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt has promised to wipe student debt for successful entrepreneurs and reduce interest on loans, the Brexit Party has pledged to remove and reimburse interest altogether, while Labour has long vowed to scrap tuition fees entirely.
It’s not hard to see where this sentiment is coming from. Politicians of all parties have woken up to the fact that support from the youngest members of the electorate is crucial.
This is, in part, due to political activism over the climate crisis by engaged future voters, but the EU referendum also saw away the stereotype that the young don’t vote.
Post-referendum polling revealed a 64 per cent turnout among 18-24 year olds, not dissimilar to the turnouts for 25-39 year olds and 40-54 year olds.
But alas, while our politicians understand the need to engage young voters, it seems that they view reducing the cost of higher education as the only way to win them over.
There is little doubt that the higher education system needs overhauling, with more options for part-time and technical learning, a restructuring of interest rates on student debt, and the reintroduction of maintenance grants.
But young voters have more pressing concerns than the cost of a degree.
What do young voters want?
A 2017 General Election Day poll by Lord Ashcroft found that the single most important issue for young people was healthcare (27 per cent), followed by the future of Europe and Brexit (15 per cent), austerity, poverty and economic inequality (13 per cent) and jobs (10 per cent).
Why not student debt?
First, unlike other forms of debt, student loan repayments are calculated on how much you earn, not how much you owe. Only the very highest earners will repay in full – in fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 83 per cent of graduates will never pay back the total amount they borrowed.
Second, according to the Department for Education, 49.8 per cent of people under the age of 30 have pursued higher education. While this figure has risen significantly in the past decade, most under-30s have things on their minds other than university.
Politicians are focusing on an issue that is essentially irrelevant to half the demographic, when there are other policy areas that really do matter.
It is predicted that one in three millennials will never own a home – a major issue given that, according to the Office for National Statistics, private renters in England spent 34 per cent of their gross household income on rent, compared to 18 per cent for homeowners repaying mortgages.
If unsolved, this will be a crisis further down the line – the independent Resolution Foundation think tank has warned of huge increases in pensioner housing benefits should renting continue into retirement for millennials under the current system.
And yet, overhauling the private rented sector to make renting for life a viable and affordable option never seems to be a priority for politicians.
Read more: The Tories face a struggle with young voters
Or look at the gig economy. This model of working could empower people with more flexible options and the chance for self-employment – crucial in a market where graduate unemployment and under-employment is a real threat. But issues abound: antisocial hours, a lack of employee benefits and rights, and irregular income from freelance contracts that makes it hard to save and plan for the future.
The government’s 2018 Good Work Plan promised to tackle the “one-sided flexibility” of many of zero-hours contracts and increase job security. But Brexit and political turmoil have hampered the progress of turning these recommendations into policy. Moving forward with them is more important to most young people than tinkering with tuition fees.
Politicians from all parties should be looking at how to avoid crises that will affect this generation in the years to come, and stop underestimating their intelligence by aiming to tick the youth-vote-box with the obvious.
Main image credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images