Students shafted up the ballot box

Westminster, where all the action takes place. Photo: Maurice Beijer

With the General Election due in the next few months, The Linc has taken a look to see what each of the main three political parties have planned for students and higher education.

The decisions taken by the Labour party, who have been in power for almost 13 years now, have widened access to higher education, but also caused some head aches for students.

In 2003 Charles Clarke, the then Education Secretary, raised the limit on tuition fees from £1,100 per year to £3,000, resulting in student debts that have reached £30,000 in some cases.

In addition, the Labour government has also scrapped the general student grant, meaning that students who come from poor backgrounds have borne the brunt of student debt.

While students from poor backgrounds can claim a maximum grant of £2,906, and those who are lucky enough to come from wealthy backgrounds can afford to live without government financial aid, students from middle-income backgrounds have been left stranded by Labour’s policies.

In terms of local support, it appears we cannot even rely on that since Gillian Merron has refused to oppose tuition fee increases, saying that the good Labour has done for education outweighs the damage.

However Labour have just passed legislation that specifies that people between 16 and 25 who are unemployed for six months will be guaranteed a job or training placement. Is this Labour returning to its roots, or just a display to attract floating voters? The latter is more likely.

The National Union of Students is also rallying troops to get the UK student population to vote in the upcoming general elections, in an attempt to slide the vote in the favour of future university undergraduates.

So if Labour don’t support student interests, the Conservative party do, right? Unfortunately not. They certainly have more university-specific policies than Labour, but are no more inclined to support students.

During Labour’s time in power, the Conservatives have had four leaders and spent a lot of time jeering at the government’s policies and decisions rather than actually displaying any strong, principled opposition.

An example is this quote from their website: “The proportion of young people going to university has scarcely changed in eight years. At the current rate, it would take Labour over a century to meet their 50% target.”

Labour have pledged to develop 20 new university campuses if they are re-elected, and unless these campuses have a capacity of less than 500 students each, we can rest assured that Labour’s plans will absolutely outweigh the pledge of 10,000 new university places from the Conservatives.

The Conservatives have also suggested they want to “offer a fairer deal to part-time and mature students,” though the nature of this “fairer deal” is completely absent from any of their policy or manifesto material.

The ambiguity of their manifesto means they could be referring to bigger grants, or a free chocolate bar with every enrolment, and until they clarify what they mean, no one can know what their plans are.

One of their few policies that actually explains itself is the “early repayment bonus” policy. This policy seeks to provide students who are able to pay back their loans immediately after graduation with a cheaper cost.

Yes, you read that right. The Conservative party is happy to aid wealthy students by helping them to pay their loans back at a reduced cost, while poorer students are left saddled with their debts. It’s absurd to forget about poor students while aiding rich, wealthy students.

They do, however, have one policy which seems to be beneficial to the average student: the creation of a new “all-age careers service”

Students who have used the Connexions service, or even the careers service in their college or university will be aware of how much they can help, though whether that’s worth your vote is down to you.

As for the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, the party’s leader, was under fire last autumn for appearing to u-turn on their policy to scrap tuition fees. Speaking at Birmingham University’s open-day, he said the party needed to be “realistic” on their main education policy.

With such obvious hesitation, it’s difficult to establish whether the Lib Dems can be trusted to follow up on their policies, and due to having never been in power, it’s still too early to confirm whether they will maintain the best interests of students anyway.

Regardless of who manages to become your MP this election, make sure that you get yourself heard.

Writing letters, publicly lobbying them, and talking to them at their surgeries are just some of the ways students can ensure they are listened to.

The candidates

We’ve given Lincoln’s prospective parliamentary candidates the chance to tell you why they deserve your vote.

Gillian Merron — Labour

Many students in Lincoln today would barely recognise our city in 1997. The last 13 years has seen Lincoln transformed, with over £100 million worth of government investment in the university alone.

Tackling a legacy of Conservative under-investment, Labour has made the University of Lincoln one of the fastest growing universities in the country.

I know that some students are concerned at the savings announced at the end of 2009, but they must be seen in the context of a decade of record public investment. Universities will have to do their fair share of belt tightening, but no more. That is why I am particularly concerned to hear that the University of Lincoln is exploring cutting bursaries, and I want to assure students that I am taking this issue up with the vice-chancellor Mary Stuart.

As students will know, the government has launched an Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, which is about ensuring that the future of funding and student support is based on evidence and facts. The review is underway and its conclusions should not be pre-empted.

But I appreciate that students want to know where I stand on the important issue of finance and who gets a chance to go to university.

The current system, in my opinion, is much fairer than it used to be. Full-time graduates no longer pay fees upfront, and there has been a significant increase in the student support available. Not only are more young people going to university, and more young people from poorer backgrounds going to university, but thanks to the huge investment in our state schools there are more young people qualified to go to university.

I want a system that is fair, that brings the widest range of people into university, particularly those whose backgrounds wouldn’t have naturally brought them there, like myself the youngest of a big family, from a council house in Dagenham – and a system that maintains our universities and students as amongst the best in the world.

This election, students have a real choice about their future and the future of Lincoln.

Karl McCartney — Conservatives

The Higher Education debate, organised by the University of Lincoln and Bishop Grosseteste SUs was a great opportunity for the main political parties to discuss the important issues relating student funding.

Funding for education is an issue that ought to have been addressed in the last 14 years and certainly should be in the next parliament.

The current economic state of nation and the skills shortage we are facing will have far reaching and negative effects on our nation’s economy and society’s well being. France and Germany have 50%+ and 60%+ educated and skilled workforces, whilst we have 28%. The current government’s solution has been to cut HE funding by nearly £500million this year with further 6% cuts planned for the next two years.

By restricting funding and capping admission rates at 2008 levels, many who wish to study are denied this opportunity. There should be no limit placed by government on an individual’s aspiration. President Obama is increasing youth training and higher educational spending in the US by 38% because of the economic downturn. Our current Labour government is cutting spending, and lowering expectation and places at a time when planning for economic and skilled workforce prosperity in the future is a must.

The proportion of young people going to university has scarcely changed in eight years. At the current rate, it would take Labour over a century to meet their 50 per cent target. So what will a Conservative government do?:

Introduce an early repayment bonus on student loans thus enabling more student places to be available; offer a fairer deal for part-time and mature students; and create a clearer pathway from vocational routes into further and higher education.

Education should be available to all and there should be no barriers to aspiration. As I said recently in my closing remarks in the debate, my late grandma always reminded my two brothers and I “nobody can take your education away from you.” So to all students in Lincoln I would stress the need to take the opportunity you have to enjoy and fulfill your education needs, and I trust and hope your future will be that much more enriched from your HE experiences as mine were.

Reg Shore — Liberal Democrats

Students I speak to demand change. They seek a fairer world built upon honesty and principle; a place where their talents can help build a brighter tomorrow; free from speculators who gamble with our economy for the want of a fast buck.

They seek a country that invests in young people because it recognises their worth. A country that is safe, progressive and forward thinking.

As an educationist, I am appalled by the present state of education funding and this includes tuition fees, student loans, compromised bursaries and cuts to Higher Education. A graduate who works for me took out a £20,000 loan in order to fund her studies. She recently started to repay that loan which has risen, in a few short years, to £25,000.

The Liberal Democrats greatest commitment is to education. We will scrap tuition fees, as we’ve done in Scotland, so that graduates will not be saddled with thousands of pounds worth of debt at a time when they are already struggling to find a job and make ends meet.

Liberal Democrats believe that a university education should be free and everyone who has the ability should be able to go to university and not be put off by the cost.

Liberal Democrats say education is important because we mean it. The educated citizen will access better pay and return higher levels of tax payments for reinvestment and their positive input into society is priceless. I am very concerned about the impact H.E. cuts will have upon research and development in universities as this government is advising that these budgets could be used elsewhere.

To maximize our ability to compete with global competition, it is essential that we have the people with the tools to re-invigorate and maintain our position as a potent force, with the strength and depth to help generate the new industries so vital to our nation’s future. We need to rediscover our talent for making things as well as placing bets on the international money markets. Liberal Democrats offer that change.

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