How did Sydney’s university suburbs vote?

Exploring whether proximity to a university impacts your vote.

With the Federal Election coming up, I’ve been on the lookout for spatial patterns in electoral data to try to better understand how elections can be won and lost. This week, I had a question: how does proximity to a university impact voting habits?

To wildly speculate a little, there could be a few potential ways that living near a university could impact voting habits. 

First, universities are often — but not always — accompanied by significant student accommodation populations, whether in colleges, student housing, or sharehouses. It’s possible, then, that polling places around universities skew young and have a disproportionate number of students voting. That could, potentially, result in a more progressive voter base that responds to youth-focused policy issues like education. All the same, this effect is probably limited by the (likely high) number of students who are registered to vote in their home suburb, state, or country. 

Second, perhaps universities are surrounded by an above-average number of academics, who themselves are subject to academic biases and have vested interests in issues like university and research funding. However, given the general insanity of Sydney’s housing market and the specifically expensive prices near universities, where landlords snap up properties to rent to students, it would be unsurprising if academics chose to commute from further away. 

To test my theory, I took a look at the 2016 census’ occupation data for university-adjacent suburbs, looking at the percentage of respondents employed in higher education. For the State Electoral Division (SED) of Newtown, which takes in USyd’s Camperdown-Darlington campus, 4.6% of employed people aged 15 years and over worked in higher education — making it the most common industry in the electorate — compared to the NSW average of 1.4%. The SED of Ryde, in which Macquarie University is located, had 2.6% of workers employed in the sector, with tertiary education the fifth most common industry in the area. 3.5% of workers in UNSW-adjacent electorate Heffron worked in higher education. Similarly, a substantial 4% of the SED of Keira, in which the University of Wollongong (UoW) is located, worked in higher education. This pattern did not extend to the SED of East Hills, in which Western Sydney University’s (WSU) Bankstown campus is based, perhaps because of the dispersed nature of WSU’s campuses.

So, perhaps workers in higher education are a factor, albeit not a huge one. But it is important to remember that the suburbs surrounding universities have their own history and character beyond the university. USyd has, for instance, been the source of a huge amount of gentrification, yet pockets of the area’s working class and Indigenous history remain. The area surrounding WSU Bankstown campus has a high concentration of people working in healthcare and service industries. To really pin down the demographics of each area, you may have to look beyond the mere presence of a university. 

All the same, I mapped out the polling booth results at the 2019 federal election in the areas surrounding each of Sydney’s major universities: UNSW, WSU, Macquarie, UTS and Sydney (I threw in UoW for good measure). The colour of the dots reflects the percentage of votes at the booth that went to Labor (the redder it is, the more votes went to the ALP; the bluer, the more went to the LNP). The size of the dots reflects the size of the swing. See for yourself: 

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