During the summer, Exeposé Online Features’ Editors Meg Lawrence and Imogen Watson video-interviewed Exeter’s Labour MP Ben Bradshaw in his office in Parliament (with a little technical help from XTV). Here, he tells Meg Lawrence what he thinks about students, schools, streetlights and much more.
You can watch the video interview at the bottom of the page.
Friendly, down-to-earth, well-humoured and approachable, Ben Bradshaw is not your stereotypical MP. Relatively unmoved by the trappings of power and privilege the politician, who has represented his Devon seat since 1997, is as proud of his political achievements as he is of his city.
Away from the West Country, Bradshaw’s Westminster office is also relaxed. His young team are chatty and enthusiastic, and clearly share their boss’s political vision.
That vision is a healthy mix of political ambition and a desire to improve the life of his constituents but it is tinged by the frustration that is an obvious hangover of opposition politics. Higher Education, he fears, is a typical casualty of a government that has forgotten to look out for young people.
‘In a global economy it’s going to be increasingly important in my view that people are qualified up to degree level. We saw a big expansion in higher education under the Labour government, I worry that this has stalled under this government,’ he admits. ‘It is becoming increasingly more difficult for people not least to be able to afford [higher education].’
Bradshaw still stands by Labour’s aim to get fifty per cent of young people in higher education. ‘If we’re to compete in the modern world in the future, in a globalised economy, we can either compete on the basis of low wages and low income… or on the basis of our knowledge and our skills,’ he says.
Bradshaw is against the recent increase in tuition fees and believes the Liberal Democrats have betrayed young people in a ‘direct deceit of the electorate’. He adds: ‘The Liberal Democrats made a clear pledge at the last election- you may remember Nick Clegg travelled around the country with his Liberal Democrat MPs holding up placards saying we will abolish tuition fees, and one of the first things the coalition did when they got into office was treble tuition fees.’
Given the chance of being in government, Bradshaw insists he would campaign to reduce tuition fees – although he doesn’t think it will ever return to being as low as £3,000 a year.
‘The current Labour policy is to reduce fees to £6,000 as an initial step, but I think we need to look at much more imaginative ways to make the funding of higher education fairer. We also need to address very urgently the trend we’ve seen in the last few years of people from middle and lower income families being put off going into higher education because of fears of getting into debt.’
Bradshaw believes it is a ‘terrible tragedy’ that people are put off going to university for fear of getting into debt and although this hasn’t been apparent in his home constituency, many universities are struggling to fill courses with a 6.6% drop in applicants to university nationwide.
But Bradshaw warns that universities like Exeter cannot afford to be complacent. ‘Exeter University has done a great job under its current Vice Chancellor [Steve Smith] over recent years in terms of expanding access. It has spent a lot of money on bursaries for students, and has also encouraged more people from the local area to go to university, but we absolutely do have to keep an eye on this, because it’s always going to be tempting for universities when they’re cash-strapped, to focus on those students who they feel will bring in the most cash.’
With its high entry levels and expensive rents, Exeter has a reputation for being a middle class student magnet but Bradshaw believes the situation is improving. He says: ‘Certainly in the years that I’ve been a Member of Parliament, I’ve seen a big change in the mix of the student body, and certainly at the Freshers’ Fair every year when I go up. You still get quite a strong contingent of young people from wealthy dependent schools but there’s also a much bigger cross-section, and also a much more international student body given the success that Exeter has had in attracting overseas students which again has helped it perform as a university, raised money and boosted the local economy.’ Those within the University seem to share Bradshaw’s opinion that opportunities are becoming more equally accessible. Hannah Barton, the Students’ Guild President, commented: ‘Is vital that universities continue to work towards equitable access to higher education for state school pupils. We have the Office of Fair Access that helps students from all backgrounds to access higher education, and there are targets set by HESA that help to incentivise this work.’
Attracting international students is no easy task given that they could end up paying as much as £35,000 for a year of study, in comparison with the £9,000 that British students now pay. But that, Bradshaw believes, is why they are so attractive as a source of income.
Bradshaw adds: ‘If you’re in a situation like Exeter University where you’re wanting to ensure that British youngsters who have got the talent and ability can go to university and not worry about the cost, and you want to provide bursaries and support for those people, and at the same time you’re facing government cuts, one of the ways that you can raise income is with foreign students, and don’t forget a lot of those foreign and overseas students will be coming on bursaries themselves from their home governments.’
Whether a home or international student, a common dilemma for any graduate is the growing prospect of unemployment. Bradshaw outlines the steps necessary to reduce unemployment: ‘The most important thing is to get the economy growing and get a proper industrial strategy in place where we’re investing in those areas – the environmental technologies, the creative industries and so forth, which will provide the well-paid graduate jobs for the future. That’s what the government needs to do.’
The issue of unemployment in recent years has stretched far beyond graduates. Between the months of May and July this year, 960,000 young people aged 16-24 were unemployed, and whilst overall unemployment may be dropping – which the Prime Minister calls ‘encouraging’ – youth unemployment is on the rise.
‘There’s a particular problem at the moment. The number of young people in long-term unemployment has trebled in the last three years. Many of these people are people who don’t have very good qualifications, they may come from families where there’s a history of unemployment going back generations, and governments need to focus on them and boosting their skills.’
Ironically, it may be these forgotten and often overlooked individuals who will eventually bring about change, Bradshaw believes. ‘Because young people have been bearing the brunt of this government’s austerity policies… there is a renewed interest of young people in politics; wanting to get involved and make a difference.
‘I’ve never bought this idea that young people these days are apathetic or they’re cynical or they’re turned off politics… Certainly whenever I go around schools in Exeter or to the College or the University I find young people not only engaged but actually much better informed and better educated than I think they’ve ever been. Young people don’t always necessarily see a vehicle for their political activism or idealism through political parties; they often feel more comfortable in channeling their energy into charity work or single-issue organizations. I think again that’s a natural progression and a lot of people come to party politics through individual campaigns.’
Exeter’s Students’ Guild President shares Bradshaw’s enthusiasm that young people are involved in politics. She says: ‘I think students are often engaged politically without even knowing it. Although they may not align themselves with a political party or political beliefs, by participating in any of the Guild’s democratic processes they are engaging in some way. I think this should be encouraged and we should continue to raise awareness of this so that students’ voices can be heard as much as possible.’
Certainly, Exeter University students don’t hesitate to be involved in campaigning and political organisation. The SOS (Save Our Streetlights) campaign has empowered students and raised awareness. On the issue, Bradshaw says: ‘I think the Devon County Council… needs to proceed very cautiously on this, and yes the students have run a very effective and I think justified campaign, not the least given some unfortunate incidents on women after dark which have happened on campus and off campus.
‘Good street lighting in areas where students are going to and from late at night is really important, not just for their safety but also for their sense of well-being. To be perfectly honest I cannot see that by switching off streetlights across Exeter that the County Council is going to be saving an awful lot of money, or an awful lot of carbon omissions. I can think of many better ways in which they can do that, so I hope they will listen to the concerns of students in Exeter and also listen to the concerns of Exeter City Council which is very worried about this.’
Ben Bradshaw’s interest in Exeter students is also apparent on a personal level. His internship scheme, open to Exeter students of politics and international relations, gives invaluable experience. He says: ‘I have been very lucky with the people who have come through the office… students have worked with me here in Westminster and also have shadowed me in the office in Exeter, getting an idea about what MPs do and how the political system works. I think they found that a valuable and worthwhile experience, and it’s always nice for me to have young people coming through the office. We tend to have volunteers and interns on a regular basis, and they’ve always got something new to bring.’
Meg Lawrence, Online Features Editorbookmark me