General Election - 'Academy cash? What about spending a penny in public?'

April 29, 2010

With the general election only a week away, Times Higher Education spent a day on the stump with three academics running for national office. Migration, social responsibility and public lavatories were all hot topics - but what about higher education policy? Melanie Newman and Hannah Fearn report from the hustings

ADEELA SHAFI, CONSERVATIVES

"This school has a special meaning for me," says Adeela Shafi, Conservative candidate for Bristol East and psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England.

Bristol Metropolitan Academy, where the three main parties' candidates for the constituency are appearing before a hall full of teenagers, is her old school.

"I'm pretty much like you," she tells the young audience, suggesting that people should vote for someone like them. "If you want someone to represent Bristol Met, do you go for someone from Bristol Brunel (a rival local school)?"

One of the teachers asks what makes a good citizen.

"Being a good citizen of your school is making sure you don't run up and down the corridors, as it may not be safe," Ms Shafi replies.

"It's the same in the outside world. You have to take responsibility for yourself."

Responsibility is Ms Shafi's main theme.

The candidates are asked what they would do to build the community. Liberal Democrat candidate Michael Popham says something about "neighbourhood partnerships", while Labour incumbent Kerry McCarthy promises "consultations".

Ms Shafi says: "We have to take responsibility for the community. If students have ownership of the community, they are more likely to take responsibility for it."

The pupils look a little nonplussed. They are tightly corralled, with a teacher at the end of every other row of seats, hissing at them at the first hint of insubordination. One teenager slowly unwinds his tie.

At the break, headmaster Stephen Taylor suggests that the candidates simplify their language.

Lee, 15, challenges the candidates on the topic of responsibility.

"Our country is in debt because the government borrowed too much from other countries," he says. "Why don't you take responsibility for your own actions?"

"It's unfortunate that people like you are going to be saddled with this," Ms Shafi responds. "The government should have put money aside in the good times instead of spending it."

A Year 10 student wants to know whether she will have a university place and a job to go to so that she can pay off the concomitant debts.

Ms McCarthy talks about Labour's 50 per cent participation target, overlooking the fact that this has now been superseded by a broader target for education and training. Ms Shafi says that the Tories would fund 10,000 extra places through early student-loan repayments.

"And we want you to do subjects that will mean you'll have a job to go to - we're trying to channel people into those," she adds. "Hopefully the economy will have recovered by the time you finish, so you'll have a great job."

melanie.newman @tsleducation.com

NADER FEKRI, LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

It is a difficult start to an afternoon on the doorstep for Nader Fekri, lecturer in history at the University of Bradford.

The Liberal Democrat candidate for Keighley and Ilkley is canvassing in Parkwood, a Labour stronghold in which the Lib Dems languish in third place.

So far most residents have failed to answer the door, and now his background as an academic is coming under fire.

"I'd rather have someone who's a man on the street, to be honest," says Jamie Robinson, a 47-year-old shopkeeper.

Expertise in higher education policy is not a natural vote winner in Dr Fekri's constituency.

"My kids just went to work. University wasn't for them and I don't really know anything about tuition fees," Mr Robinson explains.

Parkwood is in the bottom 10 per cent of wards in the country for university participation. Keighley is also below both the national and Yorkshire average, although there are pockets of higher participation in the more affluent villages.

Jean Watkinson, 63, tells Dr Fekri that as her children are now adults, she is not interested in education, but in combating crime.

He explains that crime can be beaten if young people feel less alienated and have better access to education post-16.

"We need to work on raising aspiration. We still think that education is a right, not a privilege, and by showing that, we hope we will give everybody a chance," he says.

He adds that the Lib Dems would phase out tuition fees, which he believes prevent the poorest from attending university.

Ms Watkinson agrees.

"We couldn't afford for our children to go to university," she admits.

Dr Fekri says that although there has been progress in widening participation, some universities are still not pulling their weight.

"I don't think the Russell Group universities have really widened access to students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds," he says.

He adds that the abolition of tuition fees is an important policy for the Lib Dems. In the event of a hung Parliament they may be able to force the other parties to negotiate on the issue.

He argues that it is time for the state to get back to offering a contract with the citizen, where education is free and "the state says: 'I have faith in you to go away and become a better person.'?"

Contesting the seat for the second time, Dr Fekri says this year's election is too close to call.

"As a political scientist, I'm very excited," the scholar says.

hannah.fearn @tsleducation.com

ANNELIESE DODDS, LABOUR

Anneliese Dodds is canvassing at two sheltered-housing blocks.

Her phone keeps ringing: a batch of campaign leaflets has been printed with a hotline number that is "all zeros", so everyone is calling her mobile instead.

At the same time, Roger Hayes, an experienced campaigner who is accompanying her on the round, is nagging her about "stakes" - roadside posters - that have not been set up.

"We had some weightlifters helping out; they've put a lot up," says Dr Dodds, a lecturer in social policy at King's College London, who is standing as the Labour candidate for Reading East. Mr Hayes seems unsatisfied.

Many of the two dozen or so sheltered-housing residents who open their doors to Dr Dodds are undecided about how they will vote.

One resident tells her to go away. Another can't talk because she is cooking and "all oniony".

A third says that he is "voting Greenpeace", as they are going to raise his pension. He has clearly confused the environmental action group with the Green Party.

Higher education remains firmly off the agenda, while the closure of public lavatories is a recurring issue.

About a third of the residents are staunch Labour supporters, although not all recognise Dr Dodds.

"You look fatter in your photograph," says one, "and your hair's different."

Most of the candidate's supporters agree on one thing: they cannot stand David Cameron, the Conservative leader.

"He's so cocky," says one. "He'll look after the rich, it's always the same."

Immigration is another concern. "We're swamped," says a pensioner. "Sometimes when I go into town, I think I'm the only British-born person here."

A floating voter invites the academic in to make the case for Labour.

"I could never vote Tory because I come from a small mining village," she says. "I've always voted Labour, but I think it's time we gave the Lib Dems a go."

Dr Dodds warns her that Reading East is a "tight marginal" between Labour and the Tories.

"But nobody addresses the important things," the resident says. "I paid tax all my life, now I'm being paid my pension and I'm being taxed again. No other country in the world taxes you twice.

"And I read the paper the other day and somebody was saying they were proud to be on benefits. You can take the 'great' out of Great Britain, and you can blame the politicians for that."

"I agree it's difficult if you've worked hard," Dr Dodds says. "But things would be better under Labour than under a Tory government."

The resident finally agrees: "All right Anneliese, I'll vote for you."

Back at the office, Dr Dodds' campaign coordinator Harry is frantically cleaning up.

"I've just had Special Branch here. We've got a minister visiting at 1pm tomorrow."

"I can't do that; I've got to be at work," Dr Dodds says, disappearing downstairs to write her speech for a hustings that evening.

melanie.newman @tsleducation.com.

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