There are mixed feelings towards the debate on higher education, held by Lincoln Students’ Union yesterday, February 11th.
The SU invited three of Lincoln’s prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) to debate with students and academics in the LPAC’s auditorium.
Gillian Merron, Lincoln’s current MP, represented Labour. Karl McCartney represented the Tories as their PPC, and Reginald Shore as the Liberal Democrat PPC.
While some praised it as a good opportunity to ask questions, others scorned it, saying the candidates avoided the main questions, and were left feeling disappointed.
Siobhan Bligh is one of those left feeling frustrated. She felt the debate was a farce, saying “I think it was a chance for the politicians to say an awful lot of rhetoric and avoid talking about policies – the chair could have done better in getting the candidates to answer questions.”
Huseyin Kishi, first-year journalism student, also said he was disappointed with the debate, and felt the “MPs evaded questioning.” While Nick Carey, second-year politics student, said: “All three candidates seemed to be pathologically incapable of answering questions.”
However, others consider it successful. Chris Charnley, the SU’s president, said: “It was excellent that students were given the opportunity to ask questions – it was a healthy debate with great questions and a great turnout too.”
He added: “Gillian Merron would be better off with ice skate boots, she didn’t answer questions, none of them did.”
Gillian Merron said: “It was really worthwhile. The students weren’t afraid to ask difficult questions.”
Ryan Blackburn, vice president for education and democracy at Bishop Grosseteste University College Students’ Union, chaired the debate. He said: “It was a wonderful opportunity for students to question their parliamentary candidates.”
Although he conceded: “I think a lot of questions were lead away from the main subject.”
Each candidate had five minutes to give an introduction and explain their stance and their party’s stance on higher education.
McCartney, going first, immediately attacked Labour’s efforts to date, suggesting that they had failed education by saying “some children at 16 still can’t read” and “300,000 people are projected to not get a place at university this year”.
He specified to the audience that the Conservative policy is to remove the cap on students in universities, saying he was “worried with how education is currently going.”
He added: “I enjoyed university, I think it should be available to anyone that wants to do it.”
However, McCartney went on to say that university selection should be determined by peoples’ needs: “It should be holistic – for some people university isn’t the right choice.”
Merron was next and defended her party’s contribution to education in Lincoln so far, stating that “over one hundred million pounds has been invested by the government into the university since 1997.”
She apologised for not being able to sign the pledge due to an independent investigation in education spending being made, but said the current system is “much fairer than it used to be.”
“I don’t want to see university only for those who can afford it, and the door slammed in the face of others. That’s why I oppose the Tories plan to give discounts to wealthy graduates who pay their loans back early. – This election is going to be a real choice,” she said.
Shore started by painting a grim picture. “We are here against the depressing background of a failing economy – the impact on young people was far reaching, and the future of the nation lies in your hands,” he said.
He condemned Labour for causing the deficit in university placements, and the Conservatives for not opposing their policies, suggesting that their own education policies don’t differ.
He spoke to the audience about how students will be burdened with debt for almost their whole lives, and will believe “blindly” that the Conservatives will “rescue them”. Shore went on to say that the biggest part of the Liberal Democrats’ budget would be education, and vow to remove tuition fees, as they have in Scotland.
The floor was opened for questions, where the candidate for the English Democrats party ambushed the debate by beginning a long speech of his own. When asked by Blackburn to make a question, he retorted: “Okay, but it will be a very long question” and continued with his speech.
The candidates were pressed with a variety of questions. Kishi asked what the parties would do “to combat the pricing out of the working class”, to which McCartney replied “I don’t think the working class are priced out”.
Merron said: “People from all backgrounds have the chance to go to university.”
Shore opposed this, saying: “People from poorer backgrounds are less likely to get to university, and a child with a higher IQ from a poor background loses value to one from a rich background.”
Aaron Porter, vice-president for the NUS, pounded the candidates with questions, accusing McCartney of a “lack of contribution to the discussion and a general lack of policy ideas.” He also assaulted the Liberal Democrats for “u-turning” on their free education policy, and Labour for allowing Lord Mandelson to sacrifice public services and education so willingly.
Lincoln SU attacked Merron, as both Chris Charnley and Dan Derricott, who is a student officer, pressed her for answers to the potential bursary cuts. Merron continually dodged answering the queston, much to Derricott’s annoyance.
After the ninety minute session, the candidates were given two minutes to make a closing speech, where Merron said: “I think this debate has shown the need to be realistic – I would never promise something that couldn’t be achieved.”
McCartney continued to attack Labour with more statistics, and Shore talked about his worries for the future under a Labour or Conservative government.
Blackburn finished the debate by declaring it “a wonderful sign that students here want to get involved, want to get talking and want to ask the diffucult questions.”
He said: “This is our country, these are our politicians, it’s our vote and we need a government we can trust. So get out there, ask the questions, find the answers, and make an informed decision.”
For audio from the event, don’t forget to listen to our podcast Week In Review, available from 12pm on Sunday.Tweet