NUS’ Twitter hustings puts parties to the test

As part of its #GenerationVote campaign, the National Union of Students asked Tory, Green, Lib Dem and Labour candidates about higher education policies

April 23, 2015

What more can be done to encourage women to study STEM subjects? Do you think higher education should be free? Do you think it is a public good? How would you ensure postgraduate funding that enables people from all backgrounds and of all ages to study?

These were among the questions posted on the National Union of Students’ Twitter account (@nusuk), and tweeted to parties across the political spectrum. It was part of the NUS’ #GenerationVote campiagn, which aims to encourage students to cast ballots in the upcoming general election. In 2010, only 44 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted.

Questions were directed at Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable (@vincecable); Labour shadow minister for universities, science and skills Liam Byrne (@LiamByrneMP); Conservative minister for universities, science and cities Greg Clark (@gregclarkmp); and Green Party spokesman for further and higher education, David Cocozza (@DaveCocozza). All took time out to respond.

On how the parties would ensure that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act does not “demonise communities & reduce freedom of speech”, Mr Clark said free speech was “guaranteed by law”. He added that the Conservatives would “work with unis to ensure practice provides confidence” on both preventing the “terror threat” and ensuring free speech.

Mr Cable said the Lib Dems had “strongly opposed Tory demands” relating to the act, and ensured that it “contained specific protections for universities”.

On whether student loans should be paid monthly instead of termly, Mr Byrne said Labour would “look at making support payments monthly to help students with their budgeting”. On fees, Mr Cocozza said the Greens are “deeply passionate about free education” and “students should not be burdened with £9k fees”.

Meanwhile, the Higher Education Policy Institute has created on its blog a “higher education general election policy Wall of Shame”, on which it posts details of what it perceives to be poorly thought-out political pledges.

The blog highlights the Green Party’s commitment to “reintroduce maintenance grants”, pointing out that they “have – apart from a brief hiatus between 1998 and 2004 – existed for decades”; the Conservatives’ vow to reduce net inward migration “with no exclusion for international students”, which it calls “tough talk” that might not survive coalition negotiations; Labour’s “flaky sources of income” for reducing tuition fees; Ukip’s commitment to dropping the 50 per cent university participation goal, dismissed by Hepi as “history” since neither party in the current coalition subscribes to it; and the Liberal Democrats’ “silence” on future student numbers, which it says indicates that they “may not be fully committed” to the removal of student number controls.

Hepi’s blog also points to research by Loughborough University, which found that between 30 March and 8 April, higher and further education issues comprised just 0.3 per cent of the media’s general election coverage. The topics attracting the greatest coverage were election conduct or citizen engagement (40.6 per cent), the economy (10.3 per cent), taxation (7.9 per cent), employment (5.9 per cent) and Europe (5.5 per cent).

Chris Parr

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