Peer review by ballot box: scholars hit the hustings

Academics are among the thousands of candidates hoping to win a seat in the House of Commons this May. Melanie Newman spoke to would-be MPs from each of the three main political parties about why they have decided to run for national office

April 15, 2010

NADER FEKRI, LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

Nader Fekri, the Liberal Democrats' candidate for Keighley and Ilkley, is a history lecturer who until this year was working part time at the University of Bradford.

He will stand against Labour candidate Jane Thomas, a former lecturer in politics and public policy management, and Conservative Kris Hopkins, a former lecturer in media and communications.

Dr Fekri said that, as an undergraduate in the 1970s, he was part of the first generation to be awarded a four-figure grant, for which he remains deeply grateful.

"The way I see it, community and society has put that investment in me and I have to reciprocate," said the Iranian-born lecturer, who moved to Britain aged eight.

He supports the idea of a graduate tax in place of the current fee model. "But at the point of delivery, I'd still like to go to back to the grant system," he said.

Dr Fekri said he wanted to see more debate on higher education funding but bemoaned the utilitarian nature of much discussion to date.

"For many people it's still: would you rather fund an NHS bed or a university place? It shouldn't be a tit-for-tat argument," he said.

He also decried the argument that for every pound invested in higher education, universities will make several back. "Universities are about expanding horizons. They shouldn't simply be seen as places to get qualifications. They are good for the spiritual and mental health of the nation."

On the issue of research concentration, he said: "I don't like the way the Russell Group universities increasingly see themselves as the premier league, with no responsibility for their poorer newer cousins. Under a Tory government that process might be accelerated."

ANNELIESE DODDS, LABOUR

Running for office as the Labour candidate for Reading East means standing against the Conservative incumbent Rob Wilson, a former shadow minister for higher education.

This is the challenge facing Anneliese Dodds, a graduate of the University of Oxford who is currently based at the Institute for the Study of Public Policy, King's College London.

"These will be a very important set of elections," said Dr Dodds, whose research interests include regulation and risk in health and education.

"People say there is no difference between the two main parties. I'd say there's an enormous difference, particularly on the question of funding for public services."

She said that Labour had put an "enormous injection of cash" into the higher education sector since 1997. "Yes, people are concerned that's going to change. But if you look back at the 1980s and 1990s at the kind of reductions in capacity that were going on then (under the Tories), that's a difference in kind, not just of degree."

Dr Dodds has been involved in politics since she was 18, when she became involved in a campaign to widen access to university.

She said she was "appalled" by the "closed nature" of institutions such as Oxford.

"I'm passionate about maintaining access to higher education," she said. "I'm not ashamed that we have a target (to get 50 per cent of young people into university). When I'm on school visits sometimes people say there are too many people at university. I ask them: 'How many of your children shouldn't be allowed to go?'"

She added: "The message from the other parties is that the wrong people are going into higher education. I'd like them to identify who those wrong people are."

ADEELA SHAFI, CONSERVATIVES

Psychology lecturer Adeela Shafi, who is standing as Conservative candidate in Bristol East, works in the department of education at the University of the West of England.

She graduated in psychology from the University of Bristol in 1994, and will have to oust Labour incumbent Kerry McCarthy if she is to take up a seat in Parliament this May.

Ms Shafi is a controversial candidate: it emerged earlier this year that she had county court judgments outstanding against her for unpaid debts, and that a house belonging to her had been repossessed.

The mother of four has been involved in politics for three years, and said her motivation was "looking beyond what matters to me in my immediate vicinity".

"When you come to that point you either despair and shut it all out again, or you despair and think, 'If you want something done, do it yourself'," she said.

Ms Shafi said the Tories could offer the country a change of culture "to one of social responsibility, at the heart of which lies individual responsibility".

And she was quick to mention the plans put forward by David Willetts, Conservative shadow universities secretary, to give graduates incentives to pay off their student loan debt early, bringing in funding for an extra 10,000 student places.

"This means more students getting the opportunity to get to university should they wish to," she said.

As the Tories' only female Muslim candidate, she is hardly a stereotypical Conservative.

"If the Conservatives had the interests of the rich, old, white male as their priorities, what do you think I am doing here?" she asked.

"Attitudes within the party have and are changing, but those outside the party are still adjusting to that change."

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