Debate: MP candidates dish

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Dr Evan Harris MP | Lib Dem

Dr Evan Harris is the incumbent of Oxford West, a seat he won in 1997. He studied Medicine at Wadham, and practiced as a doctor until entering Parliament. He is his Party’s Science Spokesman.

What’s your synopsis of Britain’s higher education system?

We’re lucky in Britain, and in Oxford particularly, to have some of the best educational facilities anywhere in the world. But this legacy will need to be protected against threats to funding, and to academic freedom. The Conservatives, who are the challengers in the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency, have threatened swingeing cuts and are notably quiet on the issue of free speech on campuses.

What should be the goals of our university system during the next decade?

The primary goal has to be to protect funding per student. And given that our HE system is largely taxpayer-funded, we also need to protect strategically important departments such as science and modern languages from closure. But all this is in vain without a system for fair access and reducing student debt – I’ve argued in favour of a national bursary scheme for less privileged students.

Should tuition fees go up, and how much by?

Tuition fees should be abolished, and that remains the policy of the Lib Dems. Fees are a regressive tax on learning, and impact disproportionately on the less privileged and on women, reinforcing existing biases in the system. It’s a disgrace that neither Labour nor the Tories will spell out what their policy is; though it’s pretty transparent they would lift the cap, and a university education will become even more exclusive. Our plans to cut fees are fully costed, and would not be met by reductions in budgets for education.

How would you change university funding?

Higher Education should be funded via fair, progressive taxes, not tuition fees. The two Conservative parties have cynically decided to postpone any decision on HE funding until after the election.

What would change if Parliament enacted your policies?

You’d see more people from less privileged backgrounds, less student debt, more women staying in the sector after undergraduate degrees, more protection for free speech, and environmental initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint of Higher Education.

Nicola Blackwood | Tory

Nicola Blackwood grew up in Oxford, before studying Music at St Anne’s and moving on to Cambridge for her MPhil. She works for the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Group.

What’s your synopsis of Britain’s higher education system today?

In Oxford we have first class higher education under threat – people from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to get to university, part-time students get a raw deal, and many young people are struggling with debt. Universities UK predict a major shortfall in places. The student loans system is in crisis.

What should be the goals of our university system during the next decade?

We need to make sure the UK retains its status as centre of academic excellence. We need to attract students and academics from all backgrounds. I’d like to see more independence for universities, more effective funding mechanisms and less meddling from politicians.

Should tuition fees go up, and by how much?

The current funding system is not working. The complete abolition of fees is not an option. I won’t make promises we can’t afford just to win a few votes. The level of tuition fees should be set on the basis of expert advice from the current fees and funding review.

How would you change university funding?

Conservatives want to see: a better deal for part-time and postgraduate students, more help for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, funding stability for researchers and academics. We need more private donations and more businesses supporting universities. We plan to introduce a discount for early repayment of student loans, injecting £300 million into the university system – without adding to the deficit.

What would change if Parliament enacted your policies?

The chaotic student loan system will be sorted out. University funding will be reformed fairly and openly. There will be an extra 10,000 fully funded university places in 2010. There will be better help for part-time and postgraduate students. Students will use a website with information on: true costs, earnings achieved by graduates, student satisfaction. There will be more support for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. There will be better links between universities and businesses, and a ring-fenced, multi-year science budget.

Richard Stevens | Labour

Richard Stevens is a trained solicitor and Oxfordshire County Councillor. Interested in education, Richard is a community governor at a local primary school.

What’s your synopsis of Britain’s higher education system today?

Our HE sector today is better funded and, thanks to Labour’s ambitious targets and extra support for people from poorer backgrounds, open to more students than ever before. It’s good for individuals and society as whole to have more people going to university – and it’s also good for our economy, which will need more skilled graduate-level jobs.

What should be the goals of our university system during the next decade?

Labour’s aim remains that we should see half of all young people getting into university. We want 75 per cent of all young people by 30 years old to have achieved an advanced apprenticeship, equivalent qualification, or have attended university. A key priority must be to put in place a fair funding system.

Should tuition fees go up, and how much by?

I support the NUS’s Funding our Future campaign and have pledged to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament, because I don’t think its right for students to be burdened with bigger debts at the outset of their careers.

How would you change university funding?

The key issue for me is that people from lower and middle income backgrounds shouldn’t be put off university; I say this from experience, as the costs involved are daunting if you don’t have financial support from your family. Lord Browne’s review is currently looking at how universities should be funded and I’ll be looking closely at his recommendations, but I personally support the NUS’s call for a progressive graduate tax.

What difference would I notice at university if Parliament enacted your policies?

The key difference is that you would see a university system that continues to be well funded but open to all, because money shouldn’t be able to buy education. The Lib Dems used to pledge to abolish tuition fees – a pledge they’ve now dropped for the next parliament – but were never responsible enough to say how universities would be properly funded. The Tories aren’t interested in fairness and aren’t committed to seeing more people from lower income backgrounds going to university, so there’s a big difference between Labour and the other parties.