Liberal Democrats believe that their standing among students and higher education staff is recovering after their tuition fees nightmare, as the party battles with Labour for the “university vote”.
Following Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election for 8 June, Labour and the Lib Dems will fight for the votes of university staff and students, which could be pivotal in a number of seats.
Liberal Democrats will hope that their unambiguous call for a second referendum on the UK’s EU membership wins over voters in higher education.
Labour, for its part, might opt for a radical policy on tuition fees and higher education funding. John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, told Times Higher Education prior to the announcement of the election that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign pledges to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants would become party policy.
Sir Vince Cable, the former Liberal Democrat business secretary who is aiming to win back the Twickenham seat that he lost in 2015, said that “for the university sector, there’s a lot at risk” in Brexit. “We’re certainly very keen in our pro-Remain battle that the university sector’s voice is heard,” he added.
“We are getting a revival of support [in universities],” Sir Vince continued. “There are quite strong Lib Dem branches in a lot of universities. Many of their students are willing to go out and argue the case for the [£9,000] tuition fees policy, which has had very considerable benefits for the university sector.”
Under former leader Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leadership reversed their pre-2010 election pledge to abolish tuition fees and voted to treble fees to £9,000 when the party entered the coalition government, prompting claims of betrayal.
Sir Vince acknowledged that the party’s support among students was “clearly not on the same scale as pre-2010”, adding that “Corbyn probably has a following on campus, if not anywhere else”.
But he described the tuition fees row as “largely history” and argued that “although we made a bad mistake in making the pledge, the policy was absolutely right”.
Sir Vince suggested that Lib Dem candidates in “university towns” such as Cambridge, Bristol West and Bath “could well come back on the university vote”.
In Cambridge, Julian Huppert, lecturer in physics and public policy at the University of Cambridge, is seeking to return as the city’s MP after being unseated at the 2015 election by Labour by a margin of 599 votes.
Asked what stance he would take on access for EU students and staff to the UK, Dr Huppert said: “I think we should have something called free movement.” The UK would be “much better off if students could get here to study, to work, and for academics to get here to work as easily as currently, if not more easily”, he added.
In heavily pro-Remain Cambridge, Dr Huppert faces a pro-EU MP, Labour’s Daniel Zeichner, who voted against triggering Article 50.
Dr Huppert, who voted against raising fees to £9,000, said that he “found it pretty galling having voted against tuition fees myself to have people from Labour blame me when we all know that Labour introduced them and, through the Browne review, had plans to increase them significantly”.
He added: “But actually, I think students when I talk to them, have moved beyond that sort of problem. I think there are many greater problems – I think the way that Brexit is now increasing the interest rates students will have to face is a big problem. But I think the big problem students face at the moment, other than the loss of opportunity from Brexit, is the cost of living while they are students.”
Dr Huppert also said: “I think students are generally liberal, tolerant, internationally minded people. I think they are absolutely furious at the way their opportunities are being jeopardised by this Tory Brexit government with Labour cheering them on.”