Sunday, November 14, 2010

Useless polls on the tuition fees protests

This week has offered an excellent case study in what effect public protests – including small but prominent violence – have on public opinion. The Sunday Times YouGov polls this weekend and last asked about the government plans for tuition fees.

Unfortunately, the two polls used very differently worded questions, so the results are not comparable. A pity.

For what it’s worth, last weekend’s poll found 11% in favour of universities setting whatever fees they wanted, 26% in favour of the government policy of a £9,000 fee cap, and 50% in favour of a lower cap or no fees at all. It also found 51% in favour of and 32% against the government policy on repayments of student loans (raising the earnings threshold to £21,000 and having higher earners pay more interest).

This weekend’s poll, using very different wording to set the background, had a single question that covered both the increase in the fees cap and the raising of the repayment threshold; 35% supported this, 52% opposed it.

There’s not really anything we can conclude from that.

The new poll did ask about the protest, though:

Earlier this week there was a violent demonstration against the proposed rise in tuition fees, which included protesters invading and damaging the building containing the Conservative party's headquarters. How much sympathy do you have with the demonstration?
I sympathise both with the demonstration and the direct action against the Conservative party headquarters – 13% (inc. 20% of 18-24-year-olds)
I sympathise with the demonstration, but not the damage caused to the Conservative party headquarters – 52% (inc. 47% of 18-24s)
I do not sympathise with the demonstration, nor the damage caused – 32% (inc. 23% of 18-24s)

Do you think this week's demonstration against tuition fees and the violent scenes at Conservative party headquarters helped or damaged the protesters' cause?
Helped their cause – 11% (inc. 18% of 18-24s)
Damaged their cause – 69% (inc. 58% of 18-24s)

Neither of these, though, comes close to being a measure of how the protests actually changed public opinion – if at all.

And there was a standard question about whether you think the government “will be good or bad for people like you”. Before the protests, 29% of people said good and 48% said bad; after, 28% said good and 48% said bad. Basically, no change. But among 18-24-year-olds, last weekend 24% said good and 46% said bad, while this weekend 27% said good and 40% said bad. This suggests a swing towards the government among those likeliest to empathise with the protests, but breaking the poll down into age groups means you have much less reliable sample sizes (about 130 in each poll).

I don’t think this tells us anything. A wasted opportunity.

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