#HEhustings: Tories, Labour, Lib Dems show off their party lines

The UK sector gathers to hear and debate the major parties’ poll positions on higher education

March 12, 2015

Last week, Times Higher Education teamed up with Universities UK, the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Open University to host the only pre-election debate on higher education.

The hustings were attended by about 500 people from the UK higher education sector, who congregated in London to hear from Liam Byrne (@LiamByrneMP), Labour shadow minister for universities, science and skills; Julian Huppert (@JulianHuppert), the Lib Dem science spokesman; and Greg Clark (@gregclarkmp), minister for universities, science and cities. The event on 2 March was chaired by Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (@marthalanefox), chancellor of the OU.

To ensure that everyone who wanted to watch had the opportunity to do so, the event was live-streamed on the THE website (you’ll find the recording here), and live-tweeted on @timeshighered. Hundreds of online viewers had their say, sending more than 2,700 tweets containing the event hashtag #HEhustings. Unsurprisingly, a range of views on a plethora of issues were given.

On the tuition fees section of the debate, Joanna Williams (@jowilliams293), senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent, was unimpressed. “This discussion about a few quid here or there really instrumentalises higher education and degrades universities,” she said. “Is it possible to see university as being about more than just an individual financial investment?”

“This event is excellent in exposing how little some of our politicians even know about Higher Education,” tweeted National Union of Students president Toni Pearce (@toni_pearce).

On the issue of the Disabled Students’ Allowance, proposed cuts to which are facing a legal challenge, Michelle Brook (@MLBrook) – who “until recently worked in science policy” and blogs at Quantumplations – tweeted: “Disability at uni is far more than just money allowances (although very important). There is a huge cultural shift required.”

In a vote at the end of the debate, attendees were asked to hold up a coloured card indicating which politician they felt had been most impressive. A landslide Labour victory was declared.

Patrick McGhee (@ProfMcGhee), assistant vice-chancellor at the University of Bolton, had an idea why. “Despite new fangled theories, @LiamByrneMP showed that knowing your brief still goes down well with practitioner constituencies,” he said. Jon Chambers (@jonwillchambers), a Labour supporter who has worked for a shadow minister, said Liam Byrne was “the only one who actually answered questions”.

A comprehensive spreadsheet produced by Martin Hawksey (@MHawksey), chief innovation, community and technology officer at the Association for Learning Technology, revealed that the night’s most retweeted comment was sent by Universities UK (@UniversitiesUK) containing stats on international students’ contribution to the UK economy.

@Marthalanefox clearly felt her skills had been put to the test over the course of the evening. Promising during the run-up to the event that she would be a “tough chair”, afterwards she proclaimed her “new respect for all the Dimbleby family after chairing #HEhustings. It’s exhausting keeping the politicians under control.”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tesglobal.com

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