Politicians from six parties debate at Science and the General Election 2015

13 March 2015

Research funding, tuition fees and the effects of immigration policy on international students were among the issues discussed by politicians at the Science and the General Election 2015 debate held in London on 11 March.

Election debate

Speakers representing six political parties were involved in the event at Portcullis House, Westminster, which was organised by the Society of Biology on behalf of the science and engineering community, with the Institute of Physics among the sponsors. The debate was chaired by BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh.

Universities, science and cities minister Greg Clark, and shadow minister for universities, science and skills, Liam Byrne, took part along with the Liberal Democrats’ Julian Huppert MP, a member of the home affairs select committee; Plaid Cymru’s Hywel Williams MP – a former member of the Science and Technology Committee; the Scottish Nationalists’ Alasdair Allan MSP, minister for learning, science and Scotland's languages in the Scottish government; and the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP’s) Julia Reid, member of the European Parliament for South West England.

All the speakers expressed their strong support for science, then answered questions from representatives of the science community. Naomi Weir, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (pictured), asked what each of their parties would do about funding for science, if elected. While Clark and Byrne said that they would make a strong case within their parties for improved science spending, no firm commitments could be made until a post-election review, they said. Huppert said he had tried to gather cross-party support for a ring-fenced 15-year, 3% above inflation increase in spending on science, but had been unable to achieve such a consensus.

Discussing the accessibility of the UK for students and researchers, Clark said there was no cap on numbers and there would be none. The government wanted to get the message across that the UK was a welcoming place for people to study. Byrne and Allan, however, argued that the rhetoric around immigration had damaged the country’s reputation among potential students and researchers, and Williams said that the way the system was implemented had been counterproductive. Reid said that UKIP was not opposed to immigration per se but did want to move to a points based system that would favour those people who had the skills that the UK needed.

On collaboration between science and industry, Clark emphasised the importance of catapult centres, while Byrne said that he hoped the Nurse Review of Research Councils would find a mechanism for agreed funding between policymakers and researchers.

Discussing tuition fees, Huppert said he would love to abolish tuition fees for students, but he could not see how this could now happen. Reid said that UKIP wanted tuition to be free for STEM students. Williams said that he and his siblings had gone to university, but if higher tuition fees had existed at that time, the level of debt involved would have been unsustainable for his family. Allan said the absence of tuition fees for students in Scotland was an important policy that had been implemented despite the budget pressures on the Scottish government. Byrne said that the tuition fees system was “going bust” and had a plan to cut fees to £6000 and raise maintenance grants, while fully funding the costs. Clark argued, however, that Labour’s proposals were likely to lead to “chaos” in university funding.

Listen to a sound recording of the meeting.