“Student Battleground”

Exeposé 561 (there’s nothing like talking one’s way into a Cabinet meeting and marching upto a couple of cabinet ministers to quiz them on a story they had no idea about. This was written in collaboration, particularly towards the end, with my dear friend Adam Walmesley)

Exeter has been identified by the National Union of Students as one of 20 “student battlegrounds,” where MPs’ election prospects can be won or lost by the student vote.

Several MPs have been identified as part of a “hit list” by the NUS, including John Denham, Hilary Benn, Nick Brown and Ben Bradshaw. In preparation for the upcoming general election, the NUS hasthreatened to vote against candidates who do not support their campaign against a possible rise in tuition fees.

Wes Streeting, NUS President, stated, “Through this campaign we hope to remind students of the power they hold and remind candidates of the danger of not taking our votes seriously. Our message to candidates is simple, vote for us or pay the price.”

Other “battleground” cities identified by the NUS include London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham. Streeting added, “Our list of key student seats should make the point particularly clearly. Elections have been won and lost by the votes of students before and it will happen again.”

Several Cabinet Ministers visited Exeter Racecourse on Friday February 6 for the latest in a series of meetings held outside London. This meeting was only the eighth to take place outside the capital, and was led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Exeposé attended the preliminary conference speech delivered by Mr. Brown, who appeared alongside a number of Cabinet Ministers, including David Miliband, Hilary Benn and Jack Straw. This meeting, the first time the Cabinet has met in Devon, was described by Brown as “A great privilege for all of us as Cabinet members.” Mr Brown described the University as “one of the greatest in the country. “

During a question and answer session with various MPs and members of the public, the issue of higher education was raised. Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and MP for Exeter, replied to the NUS’ suggestion that students should vote against Labour: “I don’t think that’s what they are saying actually. If you look at the results that were published this week there’s been a huge increase in student numbers in recent years.

“I hope that students will judge us on our record, but you’re right that Exeter is a battleground seat… We’ve got lots and lots of students on my campaign supporting me and they’re an invaluable source of Labour support.”

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, stated that “everybody’s got a big stake in this general election, and it’s a big stake for pensioners and families and working people but for students as well.

“Obviously… fees are an important part of the debate [about higher education], and I know that Lord Mandelson said that we will make no decisions at all until we’ve looked at this very carefully, but I think the idea of picking one issue and saying that’s the only issue for students rather downplays the importance of students as citizens in our country.” Balls called Exeter a “very progressive, but top-class university,” whilst describing Vice Chancellor Prof. Steve Smith as a “great man.”

The Government announced significant further cuts to Higher Education Funding of £449m from the 2010/11 allowance. In an interview with Exeposé, Vice Chancellor, Prof. Steve Smith said the University had made savings in anticipation of the funding reductions.

“We’ve cut back 5% of the total and that actually enables us to deal with this level of cut of government funding. At the moment we don’t see any reason to change our plans.”

Ben Bradshaw responded to Prof. Smith’s claims: “The idea that there are cuts at Exeter, as the Vice Chancellor made absolutely clear, is absolutely nonsense.”

Richard Stearn, Exeter Students’ Guild President, said: “I understand the need for cuts in light of the state of public finances, but given the benefit that HE can give the economy it seems we’re shooting ourselves in the foot in terms of long term competitiveness.”

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