Today I spoke in the rescheduled Welsh Affairs Debate, which should have taken place on St David’s Day but had to be postponed due to the snow and extreme weather.
It was important to me to speak not just about the Wales of here and now, but about our future.
You can watch my speech or read the transcript below.
Jo Stevens MP
Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker.
Wales, as we know, has a very proud history and tradition, but in thinking about the debate today, I have decided to focus on the future and particularly, the role of young people in Wales and especially close to home, in my constituency of Cardiff Central.
Cardiff is projected to be one of the UK’s fastest growing cities with a 26% population growth over the next 20 years.
I represent a university constituency in our capital city and am very proud to do so.
There are a very small number of university constituency members in this House and I am also very proud that the majority on them sit on this side of the chamber. There’s an obvious reason for that, which I’ll come to later.
Cardiff Central contains the campuses of no fewer than three excellent Universities, Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of South Wales.
Cardiff University is in the global top 100 universities, Cardiff Met is continuing to increase its strong international reputation and USW is now the second largest university in Wales in terms of student numbers.
Many students and academics from other Universities also choose to make Cardiff their home contributing to Cardiff Central having the second highest proportion of residents aged 16 – 24 year in the UK.
40% of our city’s population hold tertiary level qualifications, and we have 75,000 students in the city-region which amounts to half the student population in Wales. There are 43,000 students in Cardiff, most of them living Cardiff Central.
Postgraduates now make up more than one in three students studying in Cardiff’s higher education institutions, and international students make up a quarter of those studying in Cardiff.
The first University in Cardiff was founded in 1884 with only 13 academic staff and 102 full time students. What has been developed and built over the past 134 years, not just in terms of expanding campuses, but in terms of knowledge, skills and the Welsh economy is a wonderful achievement.
Intervention: Stephen Doughty MP
I thank my Hon Friend and neighbour for giving way, and she’s making an absolutely excellent point and indeed many of the staff and indeed some of the students – not as many as her own constituency – are in my constituency and I’m very proud of the role universities play in Cardiff. Would she agree with me that it’s a real important thing that we saw so many young people, indeed lecturers and staff from Cardiff University, turning out to protest against the extreme far-right, neo-nazi actions that we regrettably saw in my constituency over the weekend? To have that solidarity across Cardiff was a powerful thing to behold and I’m sure she’d join me in welcoming it.
Jo Stevens MP
Absolutely I thoroughly endorse what my honourable friend says and we know that when those incidents happen in Cardiff, which sadly they do from time to time, the whole community turns out in support of our fight against it.
When I walk through Cardiff Central past neo-classical buildings of Cathays Park, or the modern, striking architecture of the University of South Wales, or Cardiff Met, those buildings are a striking reminder that our universities represent both our openness to ideas and our promise to future generations. How we value and treat our universities and those who work and study in them says a lot about our progress on those fronts.
And topically, the last month has seen the biggest ever industrial action undertaken by the University and College Union in defence of the University Superannuation Scheme and proposals by Universities UK to change the scheme. Those changes would mean a reduction of £10,000 a year in pension for the average university academic.
Cardiff University UCU members voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action, easily seeing off the restrictions in the mendacious Trade Union Act introduced by the government.
And Cardiff UCU, through a very effective campaign and with a perfectly reasonable and justifiable case, have seen their Vice Chancellor, who is also the Head of Universities Wales, eventually peel away from the hard core of Vice Chancellors who were opposing any return to the negotiating table and a fresh independent look at the pension fund valuation that had been undertaken by Universities UK.
This dispute which I’ve mentioned which has hit Cardiff University is a consequence of this Government’s marketisation of Higher Education.
In the Government’s rush to ensure that Universities are run like private businesses, lifting the cap on tuition fees and treating students as customers, the balance sheet has become king.
It’s the balance sheet that will allow vast borrowing to expand campuses and capacity and as we have seen in the private sector, employees’ pensions are always an easy target when you’re trying to smarten up your balance sheet.
But what’s the point of a glossy prospectus and a shiny new building if you can’t attract the best people to teach and do research in them?
If Brexit wasn’t enough of an unnecessary threat, we don’t need to turn the brightest minds away from a career in our universities in Wales teaching the next generation of engineers, doctors, teachers, business leaders and yes, maybe even politicians, by making those careers less attractive through slashing university pensions.
As Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of Essex University has said: “University employers must step up to the plate and commit to increasing employer contributions to the scheme. Principled compromise is the answer.”
But going back to the issue of how we value and treat our universities in Wales and those who work and study in them. Government higher education policy says a lot about its attitude to young people in Wales.
In 2010 the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition Government made it clear what future it had in mind for the next generation when it saddled young people with tuition fees of £9,000 a year and this was made clearer when the current Government replaced maintenance grants with loans.
Whilst preaching the virtue of paying down the national debt, claiming this was for their benefit, the UK Government devised a system whereby the average graduate would be £50,800 in debt, and the poorest graduate an average of £57,000 in debt.
The bankruptcy of this system can now be seen in the Prime Ministers own pledge to freeze tuition fee rises and hold a review.
Contrast this with the approach of the Welsh Labour Government which has looked to keep maintenance grants at every stage of further education from college to the end of University.
It has also kept NHS bursaries in Wales unlike the Government here.
Labour’s policy has been to ensure that the playing field is kept as even as possible, as opposed to piling the highest amount of debt onto the poorest students.
Whilst the Welsh Labour Government has not able to reign in fee rises indefinitely, it has ensured, for almost a decade, that Welsh students have graduated with significantly less debt than their English counterparts and will continue to do so.
Intervention: Chris Elmore MP
I’m very grateful to my Hon Friend who’s making an impassioned speech – and obviously greatly informed as well. One thing the Welsh Government has also done is worked with students including NUS Wales to get to where we are now with this new programme for students. We see a contrast between the how British government and the Welsh Government works here.
Jo Stevens MP
Absolutely, my Hon Friend is absolutely right to say that. And that permeates so much of Welsh Labour Government workings through the social partnership, with trade unions in Wales and public services, and with the NUS in Wales on education.
All of this matters because although Cardiff has three excellent Universities, it also has post codes and catchment areas that contain some of the highest levels of poverty in Wales.
No child, wherever they live in the United Kingdom, should ever have their aspirations of obtaining a university degree curtailed because of the frightening burden of debt.
With the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckoning that three quarters of our graduates will never pay off their student loan, it is clear we need to end this system which is loading our children’s future into a Ponzi scheme.
The government’s approach to Higher Education also says a lot about our openness to new ideas and new people. It is vital that Government listens to the concerns of Universities and students rather than dismissing them.
Universities and their global connections and collaborations are vital to our knowledge economy. For instance, a report by the London School of Economics has found that Cardiff University alone contributes £3 billion to the UK economy per year.
Every year International Students at Cardiff University generate over £200 million for Cardiff’s local economy.
Welcoming people from all over the world has long been an integral part of our successful higher education sector, yet our exit from the European Union threatens to compromise that.
For all of the Governments words, everyone knows that immigration policy is being dictated by what looks good on the front page of the Daily Express or the Mail rather than for the good of the country.
The Government says that it remains committed to the UK – and by extension Wales – being as “open as before” yet that contrasts with its own stated aim of reducing net immigration to “tens of thousands”, which unless it is planning on encouraging mass emigration will necessitate a large drop in the number of international students.
The Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations which at best has been confused and at worst downright hostile, is already having a detrimental effect on our higher education sector with a fall in applications from EU students to UCAS.
If the Government is serious about the UK still being open to new people it needs to recognise the overwhelming view of the public and drop international students from its immigration targets.
It also needs to explain to us and to the Welsh Government how it is going ensure academic institutions in Wales and across the UK can still easily attract and recruit European Union academics after Brexit.
Literally every week in my advice surgeries I have constituents coming to see me to ask me whether they will be able to live, work and travel in and around Europe as they do now.
I can’t answer those questions, but it seems I’m in very good company because pretty much every question I ask the Secretary of State for Wales or his Minister they can’t answer either.
In the last 4 months I have asked the Secretary of State 8 times whether he can identify and name any specific advantages or opportunities for Wales of leaving the EU.
He hasn’t yet given me a single specific tangible example.
With our exit less than a year away, this is ridiculous.
In contrast, students and academics in Cardiff have been regularly and forcefully telling me how Brexit is harming the horizons of Higher Education in Wales.
Cardiff University is currently part of over 50 Horizon 2020 schemes and the EU remains a significant investor in Welsh Higher Education. This funding and the jobs it supports, could easily be lost in the car crash Brexit that some members of the Government are pushing for.
Welsh students are currently able to enjoy the advantages of the Erasmus+ scheme along with students from non-EU countries such as Norway and Iceland. Whilst the Government has in principle committed to paying into EU programmes, the lack of detail on the future is deeply concerning.
We need clarity, now, that the Government has contingency plans in place for alternative sources of large scale credit and funding which our Universities have often benefitted from.
I’ll finish, Mr Deputy Speaker, by just talking briefly about duty.
We often speak about duty in this House. Our duty to our constituents, our duty to our country. But surely, both those duties are not just in the here and now. They encompass the future too.