Over the next five years, students may be an “easy target” for government cuts, Caroline Lucas has claimed. Painting a damning picture in an interview with Concrete, the Green MP indicated that students bear the brunt of government policies and warned that the possibility of the UK leaving the EU could hit students hard.
Lucas spent a couple of days in Norwich and, in amongst her busy schedule, the Brighton Pavillion MP spoke to us about what she thinks the next five years have in store for students.
Sitting in a hardback chair on the sticky floor of UEA’s LCR, Lucas outlined the need for Stronger in Europe, one of the groups campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, to engage with students: “I think that the in camping, the Stronger in Europe campaign, needs to recognise that if they are to reach out to young people then they need to not just do it in terms of the economy but talking about the kind of society that we want to be”.
Continuing, Lucas argued that failure to expand in this way could mean that students take for granted the benefits of the EU and may not realise just how important a decision they are making in an EU referendum: “I think that most young people are people who are looking outward, who are confident, who take it for granted that they can travel in the EU, study in the EU – they have friends from the EU who are studying alongside them here. And that adds to our cultural richness. So I think we just need to be making a… case for EU membership that’s not a narrow economic one but [which] is actually about the kind of people we are and the kind of relationship we want to have.
“I think students can absolutely be at the forefront at that. It would be quite a shock to students today to say, well actually you can’t go to study in an EU country and you are not going to be able to have your university colleagues coming here”.
Lucas currently sits on the board of the Stronger in Europe campaign and has a leading role in determining the exact direction that the campaign takes. She wants to ensure that the people who front the campaign, as well as the campaign’s message, is diverse and appeals to everyone. “[We have to make] sure it is not just fronted by business men – because it is usually men – in grey suits, but actually that you have a far wider group of people who are making the case to stay in the EU”.
Moving on from the EU, the Green MP highlighted that the potential of Brexit was not the only threat to students over the course of the current parliament, and argued that the Conservative government’s proposals to scrap the student maintenance grant were also troubling. “I think that the scrapping of maintenance grants is yet one more attack on students” she declared. “It’s being done because the government takes a calculation that students are perhaps less likely to have voted Conservative in the first place, so they feel that they are an easy target for their polices”.
Similar to her beliefs that there needs to be greater awareness of the benefits of the EU for students, Lucas argues that the government managed to announce its intentions to scrap maintenance grants to little public opposition because people are unaware of what is happening. “It is absolutely crucial that we get more people to know that the grants are actually being cut. I think that the general public tend to understand that tuition fees have gone up but I don’t think that many of them understand that there’s been this big change to grants as well”.
Explaining what must be done to raise awareness of the government’s policy, Lucas said: “I think that [we need] more stories of people who will not go to university – case studies and stories – so that people actually relate to what is happening, so that it’s not just another abstract set of figures but it’s actually about people”.
[su_spoiler title=”Peter Sheehan looks behind Caroline Lucas’ words” style=”simple” icon=”chevron-circle” anchor=”Comment”]Caroline Lucas speaks well. She is sure of her facts, and she is well-versed in the message that she wants to get across. But these are not the half-baked ramblings of a hard-left has-been. In contrast to what many see as the rose-tinted politics of decades past that is inspiration to Jeremy Corbyn – re-opening the mines, anyone? – Lucas is focused firmly on the future.
Her emphasis on the need to integrate economic and environmental policy sets her far apart from MPs in other parties. This is, of course, unsurprising – she represents the Green party, after all – but it is all the more striking for its being heard less often than perhaps it should. What’s more, she manages to talk about tackling climate change without sounding like a hippy-dippy tree-hugger.
She makes a very good point about the pro-EU campaign. The chair of the official “in” body, Stuart Rose, is very much the business man in a grey suit that Lucas alludes to. Currently the chairman of Ocado and formerly the chief executive of Marks and Spencer, he is undoubtedly the kind of person with whom David Cameron would be happy to associate with – and his appointment is to be welcomed insofar as it gives the lie to the charge that the EU is inherently anti-business. Yet for all that, he isn’t what you would call an inspiring figure. And younger people are unlikely to be rallied to the pro-EU cause by the man who used to run the shop where their grandmothers buy petticoats.
So it is heartening that Lucas has identified the gap in the market, as it were. And that she wants to steer the debate away from cold economics and more towards stories and people’s experiences. It’s the kind of strategy that’s more likely to appeal to a younger constituency – in fact, it might well appeal to an older constituency as well.
What is perhaps most surprising is Lucas’s optimism. After David Cameron secured a majority in this year’s general election, many on the left of politics were down-heartened – and all the more so given that the result was so different from what had been predicted only hours before.
Lucas is already looking forward to the next time the country goes to the polls, and she points out that overturning a Conservative majority of only 12 should not be that difficult. For her, it’s not as if the country has lurched irrevocably to the right. Indeed, in the talk she gave before speaking to Concrete, she says that it was people’s fear of the unknown that played a large part in keep Labour out of power.
The same goes for the coming EU referendum. Not once does she indicate that she fears Britain in heading for the exit. Far from it: the chance to convice the electorate of the benefits of EU membership seems to genuinely exicite her. It’s an outlook that others coiuld learn a lot from.[/su_spoiler]
According to Lucas, the scrapping of maintenance grants is just an example of one area in higher education where action must be taken: “[Maintenance grants are] a part of a broader discussion about the purpose about education. The government has managed to get away with suggesting that students who go to university are simply following their own preferences and that therefore it’s a private decision.
“For me, further education and higher education is a public good: it’s good for all of us that we have more trained engineers or teachers or doctors or whatever – and actually all of the country benefits from this. I think we need to put education more firmly as a public service and a public good and therefore it makes sense for it to be paid for more publically, [rather] than simply [being] a private contraction between a students and their institution”.
Lucas also claims that her party has the solution on how to fund free higher education and was eager to highlight their viewpoint: “One of the things the Green party has been championing is a proposal from the University College Union. [We are calling for] an education tax, which is just a 4% tax on the largest companies. If you were to increase their corporation tax by a small amount you would be able to get rid of tuition fees and restore grants straight away. The reason I think that this would be a good idea is because business benefits from the fact they have got a trained and educated work force and yet they put nothing into the pot, they’ve made no contribution to that. I don’t think it will be impossible to change our system to make our system a genuine public good.”
While Lucas illustrated her belief that the next five years could prove to be tough on students, she did offer some small solace to those students dissatisfied with the outcome of May’s general election and the Conservative government’s policies. Optimistically already looking forward to the 2020 general election she said: “The Tory majority, no matter how awful it is that we have one – it is only a majority of 12 and you don’t have to do that much to change that”.