On the fringe: difference, money and milk shakes...

September 22, 2006

Higher education might not have been a big feature of platform speeches at the Liberal Democrat conference, but it made a healthy showing at fringe events.

  • Popping up in a small student event was Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary who is tipped as a future leader. Before a student theatre group in an old market hall, he and the MP Lembit Opik were asked: "What difference would voting Liberal Democrat ever have made?" "Well, you wouldn't have top-up fees for a start," Mr Clegg fired back. A fine answer in the circumstances, but one the right-leaning MP might not wish to repeat too loudly if the party begins a lively debate on top-up fees.
  • There were smiles all round at the fringe event organised by Lib Dem think-tank CentreForum, where speakers debated whether Britain could compete in a globalised world. Universities UK representatives were pleased to hear Lord Razzle, Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Trade and Industry in the Lords, offer a ringing and lengthy endorsement of universities. And his conclusion was that universities not only educated people, they brought in "a lot of money" for GB.
  • The National Union of Students, which has for years fought against tuition fees, likes to point out that hard-working students are being burdened by debts because of the cost of study, not because they party non-stop. So one had to feel for Gemma Tumelty, the NUS president, who attended a University and College Union event on "the real price of linking post-16 education to the job market and industry". A student from Bristol volunteered that he and his mates spent much of their time drinking and not working very hard. A horrified Ms Tumelty retorted that this was not the experience of most students.
  • The event organised by the NUS and Campaigning for Mainstream Universities was enlivened by the arrival of huge glasses of what looked like milk. The liquid turned out to be banana milk shake. "I think I ticked the wrong box," an NUS organiser said sheepishly.

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