On Thursday the 9th of December, Parliament voted to increase the cap on tuition fees to £9000. SUSU sent along coaches to the vote, along with Solent University, in order to try and lobby MPs one final time. This is what Billy Fitzjohn, SUSU President, had to say about the day.
Sasha Watson: So we’ve seen the vote has passed, with a reduced majority of 21, as 27 Coalition MPs voted against the Government’s proposals, however, this wasn’t enough to stop the motion passing; how do you feel about the result?
Billy Fitzjohn: I felt very dejected at the result and I was extremely disappointed, I believe it was a very dark day for politics and for Higher Education overall. However for the Governments majority to be reduced that significantly is testament to the thousands of people across the country that campaigned against these proposals and if it wasn’t for many MPs simply being led by the party whip then I believe we would have seen a very different result.
SW: SUSU were there to lobby MPs, how did you think the day went? What surprised you most about the day?
BF: The day was good and I began it feeling genuinely optimistic, especially after speaking to my local MP Alan Whitehead. SUSU students managed to get into Westminster hall just in time to lobby their MPs as not long after we heard that violence had begun to erupt outside on the streets. I spoke to many MPs throughout the door and we were one of the few Unions to be in the lobby hall for the entire day. After speaking to Alan Whitehead (Labour) it struck me even further that it was not just a debate taking place over the potential rise in fees, but also one over political process. This vote was taking place with no White Paper in place, and the whole thing felt very rushed. I spoke to the Solent SU President who had earlier spoken to Caroline Nokes (Conservative) and she apparently admitted that she felt that these proposals were fairly rushed and that a number of MPs felt uncomfortable with the process regardless of their opinion on tuition fees.
What confirmed this for me even further was when I met Steve Brine (Conservative MP for Winchester) who opened with the words “I’m angry with my Government for this and angry that I have to vote on this issue”…To which we responded, well don’t vote then, stick to your principles. Meeting Steve was a highlight of the day because you could really get a sense that something wasn’t quite right and that he felt uncomfortable with the proceedings. A young MP, and a former Student Union President himself, myself and other students did all we could to try and convince him to propose that this vote at least gets delayed until students can see more assurances and that there is a white paper. Steve finished the conversation by telling us that we had made a “powerful case”…we pleaded with Steve to tell the Chamber what he had told us and to lead the way for MPs to not just stick with the party line and to stand by their ideals. I away believing that we had made a strong case and that he had plenty more to think about for the rest of the day, however Steve later voted for the rise.
What made my conversation with Steve even more interesting was the conversation I had half an hour later with my home MP, Martin Caton (Labour MP) who was voting against the rise. I had tea with Martin and what was extremely interesting about him was that he was an MP that had rebelled against his own Labour Government back on the issue of the Iraq war and over the introduction of top up fees. We spoke about being led by the party line and this was a man who had stuck by his principles and by those who he represented in his constituency to vote against his Governments proposals. Many MPs fear for their political careers if they rebel within the Government, however Martin is still in his job today and is glad he stuck by those principles. I had great respect for him and it is a shame not more MPs learned from that approach. Martin did express his concern with the vote and told me even though there was a strong rebellion he felt that it wasn’t to be strong enough and that the vote would go through, this was around 4 o clock so in the final few hours my optimism was declining as time went on.
SW: The outcome was always predicted to not make pleasant viewing for students, despite the best efforts displayed, particularly by SUSU – but could students have done any more?
BF: I think students did everything they absolutely could, externally the only real experience I had was at the Aldwych group and this was a group of students who were extremely passionate about this issue and were doing everything they could to lobby their MPs and mobilise their students to speak out against the proposals. I am very proud of SUSU’s efforts and my main praise goes towards Rob Stanning. Over the past month Rob has been working tirelessly to lobby our local MPs and to mobilise students to act against the proposals. The past few weeks have been way more than 9 – 5 for Rob and he has been out collecting signatures and more importantly talking to student members about the issues that will affect them and the future generations. A huge thank you has to be sent his way and to all of those who helped him and supported the cause. The highlight for me was being in the hall of Parliament, one of the few Unions to be in there and Southampton students should all be very proud in what they stood up for and the way they have conducted themselves with it.
SW: What’s next for student activism and those who want to continue putting pressure on the Government about these cuts?
BF: The next step, well, our work is only going to get harder and there is an even bigger challenge we face ahead. There is a political battle that we must continue to fight and we must carry on lobbying the MPs and Government to ensure that the right work is being done for students. However the challenge has now also shifted immensely onto a different front, and that is the challenge with the University. SUSU must act now to make sure that the University is doing everything correctly when thinking about what fee it charges and what it must deliver to students in the future, without fail. SUSU has a lot of plans now to ensure that we are in constant communication with the University over what their plans are after these proposals. I think the fundamental point is students will expect more, they will no longer accept excuses and they must also arrive at the University with the right expectations, expectations that can and will be delivered without fail.
The University is currently in the middle of creating an official response, which will be made available online at the Wessex Scene shortly.