Candidates oppose rise in tuition fees

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The Independent Online

Candidates from Labour and the Conservatives put themselves at odds with their own parties yesterday as they declared they would oppose any rise in tuition fees during the latest of the Independent’s soap box debates.

Sam Townend, for Labour, and Charlotte Leslie, from the Tories, pledged to fight any moves to bump up the fees of higher education as they battled for the votes of students in the Bristol North West constituency. Neither party has ruled out increasing tuition fees after the election.

Prospective parliamentary candidates from five parties mounted soap boxes in Bristol’s College Green amid glorious sunshine. They addressed voters directly about their concerns ahead of the election, now just two weeks away. They were asked about their views on immigration, tax and the economy during the lunchtime meeting – and also quizzed by one disillusioned voter over whether or not party manifestos should be legally binding.

But with many students in the audience, the issue of tuition fees dominated. “I will be opposing any raising of the cap on student fees,” Mr Townend said. “We must stop our students getting in so much debt, and that is what I stand for.” Ms Leslie added: “I, too, am opposed to any rise in tuition fees and also believe that if they do pay fees, they should get value for money.”

Paul Harrod, the Liberal Democrat candidate, who also against increasing the fees, said that his rivals should have run as independents if they were opposed to their party leaderships. He warned that both the other main parties had agreed that a review of higher education funding was needed. He said lifting the cap on tuition fees could see students forced to pay £10,000 a year to study. “It could be that rather than where you want to go and study, it is about where you can afford to go and study, which is completely wrong,” he said.

Just as party leaders turned on Nick Clegg on Thursday evening, so the Tory and Labour candidates hit out at their Liberal Democrat rival for his party’s long-term aim of abolishing tuition fees completely. “However lovely it would be to abolish tuition fees, there are some realities of cost and the amount of money we have,” said Ms Leslie. Mr Townend added: “The truth is, the Lib Dem spending plans really don’t stack up. You can’t go along with their premise that they can pay for all these things. They can’t.”

However, Mr Harrod earned woops and applause from supporters in the crowd as he urged voters to “do things differently” at this election. Alex Dunn, from the Greens, also received a round of applause for his pledge to back the scrapping of the Trident nuclear programme. However, some candidates also learned that braving the soap box brought risks. Ray Carr, from the English Democrats, was heckled by one potential constituent for his hard line on immigration. He said his party “was not anything like the BNP”.

More than 50 candidates around Britain will be challenged to speak directly to their voters as part of The Independent's democracy campaign. Students Louise Behenna, 18, and Jade Wilkins, 19, both first time voters, said the debate in Bristol had helped them make up their minds. “We’ve only just become old enough to vote, so we came down,” said Louise. “I thought it went really well. It’s really useful to see what they have to say.” For Jade, the Liberal Democrat had won the day. Mark Vowles, 25, a sales worker, had discovered the hustings during his lunch break. “It’s nice to see a live debate and understand the nitty gritty of their policies,” he said. “I’ve got a good gist of it now.”