The student body politic

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Photo: Lorelei Pfeffer
Photo: Lorelei Pfeffer

 

Local MP Stephen Gethins sits down with Features editor Emma Freer to discuss his agenda and why students should care about it.

Since his election last May, Stephen Gethins has been busy serving as the MP for North East Fife, has been elected to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and has continued to serve as the SNP spokesperson to Europe. In short, he wears a lot of hats.

However, he still made the time to meet with The Saint to discuss why students should participate in politics and what is coming up on his agenda that will affect students here at St Andrews.

On a local level, his work as an MP is determined by what arrives in his postbag. An ongoing problem is accommodation, which is something that directly applies to students. For students struggling with where to live in St Andrews, he is happy to be of service. Students who have issues with landlords or letting agents and who feel that Mr Gethins may be in a position to help are more than welcome to contact him directly. “As a Westminster MP, I don’t think it is for me to come in and tell the University how it should run, but I will get involved in terms of helping students where they feel that they need my intervention [and] where they think that I can be of assistance,” he said.

Of course, the St Andrews student body is not Mr Gethins’ entire constituency; he is also focused on the issue of access to accommodation across Fife. “There’s also the issue of hardship,”Mr Gethins said. “Some of the policies at Westminster are having an impact on poverty across Fife, and there are one or two students I know that have been caught up in that as well.” In relative terms, St Andrews’ housing crisis is a much less pressing issue compared to the ongoing problems of poverty in our county.

Additionally, Mr Gethins is focused on making St Andrews as hospitable to small- and medium-sized businesses as possible. Students who have attended the University for a few years will have noticed how much the local business scene has changed, with many family-owned restaurants, boutiques and markets having been replaced by chain stores and mass-market brands. “It’s not for me to say that the big chains are not welcome – of course they’re welcome – [but] my priority would always be to help the local businesses,” Mr Gethins said. “Because people, when they come to St Andrews, tend to come for the unique shopping experience. That’s something that we need to maintain, St Andrews’ uniqueness and attractiveness as a day trip destination.”

Just as he has been impressed by the local business community, Mr Gethins has also noticed how integral the student body is to St Andrews. “One thing that I’m really impressed within St Andrews is the way that lots and lots of societies really get involved in their local community and have a really positive impact,” he said. On the night before our interview, he spoke to the St Andrews University students for independence at a pints-and-politics night. He took notice not only of the work done by the society, but also of the students present, noting that some stopped by to take collections for refugees or to speak to him about local issues.

Mr Gethins is adamant that all students belong in his constituency. “The message that I want to put out [in this article] is, ‘I’m your MP.’ So even if you don’t ever vote in UK elections, even if you voted for someone else, regardless, I’m your MP, and I am here to help you.”

In return, Mr Gethins only asks that students consider their own political involvement, whether through their voting voice or in the ways that policy decisions affect them directly.

On a national level, Mr Gethins has advocated to lower the voting age in Scotland. One of the first things he did after becoming an MP was pass an amendment that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in the political process. “I think it’s the responsibility of people like me who are involved in politics to think of different ways to get people involved, which is so important and which is why I’m [speaking with] you today,” he said.

Gethins cited research that shows that the younger people start voting, the more likely they are to keep up with it. “If we catch you early, it will be habit forming,” he said. Youth will also be affected by national politics in significant ways, especially in the case of the recent and upcoming referendums, which is why it is important that they are included in the electorate.

Furthermore, younger voters disrupt the political process in important ways. “[They] are increasingly sophisticated because they get their news from a wide variety of sources, and it’s very difficult on a political level to put a spin on something because people can go to the primary source for any kind of information,” Mr Gethins said. “And that’s not a bad thing, in terms of becoming a more informed electorate.” (Incidentally, you can find Mr Gethins on Twitter and Facebook.)

*****

Another crucial issue on Mr Gethins’ docket is the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced to the Scottish Parliament in June. This, of course, affects all students directly.

The bill, which is still fairly vague in its wording, has proved contentious. On paper, it contains four major provisions: 1) Scottish Ministers will determine the process by which chairing members of a governing body would be appointed; 2) membership of that governing body will be required to include union, student and alumni representatives; 3) academic boards will be restricted in size and constitution, as at least half of the membership would be required to be elected; and 4) academic freedom will require explicit protection (if not a clear definition).

Principal Louise Richardson has spoken out against the bill. She told the Herald last May: “I think there is an increasing level of regulation and I do think, on the whole, that it is detrimental to universities.” The bill is regarded by some as an attempt by the Scottish government to gain control over universities, especially their funding.

Universities Scotland, the representative body of the country’s 19 higher education institutions, has said that the bill will endanger universities’ charitable status. So closely associated with the government, universities would technically become part of the public sector (should the bill be passed). As a result, institutional access to tax breaks and appeal to philanthropists would be sharply reduced. University funding is already under siege, and some fear the bill will increase the losses.

There have also been claims that the bill’s attempt at centralisation will undermine the autonomy of individual institutions’. In the same Herald article, Principal Richardson said: “In a sphere like Scotland where you have a large number of universities, one of the strengths of the system should be the diversity of the institutions and it is important that we allow those differences to flourish rather than trying to treat all universities as if they are the same.”

The SNP defends the bill, despite the widespread criticism. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said: “It is important that we, as a government, engage with and listen to the views that are expressed from the higher education sector, and we will continue to do that. But let me be clear that the bill is not about introducing ministerial control over universities.”

To this end, a Scottish Government spokesperson told the Telegraph: “Far from increasing control, we are simply trying to introduce measures to ensure greater consistency and transparency.”

Like the SNP’s other major education reform – free tuition for Scottish and EU students – this bill is ostensibly presented with good intentions. Similar to the Higher Education Act in 2004, the current bill is meant to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university. “Education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay,”Mr Gethins said. “That’s an investment as well as anything else because if you invest in giving your young people a set of skills, then you’re investing in your future.”

Mr Gethins applauds the University’s efforts to attract more diverse students to St Andrews. “Given all the benefits, I’d love to see more Scottish students take the opportunity of coming here. It’s got high levels of teaching, and it’s also a good experience,” he said. “I think the University is doing the best to get its message out there.”

However, he also admits that the issue of widening access “will always be a challenge for the University.” His recommendation is that the University should speak to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are currently attending St Andrews to learn what influenced their decision. Having learned from their experiences, the University can then speak to this demographic more effectively.

However, not everyone agrees with Mr Gethins that this is a good idea. Ian Donnell is a second-year student and the newly minted president of the St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association. “That’s a really silly thing of Stephen to say,” said Mr Donnell. “He doesn’t need to sit down with students. He needs to have a look at his own policies first and see why that number [of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university] not only has not increased by has actually fallen.”

It is well established that the Scottish Government’s policy of free tuition for Scottish and EU students has failed to increase the number of children from poor backgrounds entering higher education. Whether or not this is a cause of the policy or of broader social issues is less clear.

Instead, the issues plaguing higher education in Scotland have become a battleground of party politics. Where Conservatives believe that the higher education system should remain autonomous, the SNP believes that centralisation will help address inequality at the university level.

Mr Donnell said: “I don’t accept that universities should really have to change in any way because I think that the focus of getting students actually here [at St Andrews] lies at the most basic level of schooling.” Instead of attempting to control university administration, he believes – as does the Conservative party – that the British government should focus on strengthening the public school system by investing in teachers and infrastructure.

Principal Richardson agrees. “We cannot expect universities to solve those problems [of widening access],” she told the Herald last spring. “[T]he investment has to be made much earlier to ensure that kids in poor areas get the education and have the ambition to attend the best universities.”

Mr Gethins maintains that he is “doing [his] bit to encourage students to come to [St Andrews],” and he will obviously support the Higher Education Bill. But it is up to voters – students included – to decide if the SNP’s proposed solution is the right one. The St Andrews Labour society and St Andrews University students for in dependence did not respond to requests for comment.

*****

In the meantime, Mr Gethins has many other issues to focus on. On the international front, he stressed the importance of immigration reform, the upcoming EU referendum and the Syrian refugee crisis as those most applicable to students.

International students will be glad to know that Mr Gethins thinks the current state of immigration in the UK is “crazy.” He said: “We’re encouraging students to come here. We’re training them to really high standards. They want to stay here. And they’re getting kicked out of the country.” He hopes that new rules will make the immigration process much more sensible. “Scotland benefitted from immigration and continues to benefit from immigration,” he said.

As far as the EU is concerned, Mr Gethins said his main concern for Scotland is that the country stays a part of it. However, he also stressed that the upcoming referendum presents an important opportunity for reform, which he believes “should be a two-way process.” He hopes that in addition to remaining a member state, that a sense of solidarity will be achieved on issues like climate change and the Syrian refugee crisis. “States need to pull together,” he said. “No one state can deal with the to day’s crises on its own.”

The week after our interview, Mr Gethins was scheduled to visit a refugee camp on the Syrian border. His investment in this crisis was apparent, and as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee he is in a position to contribute to a positive British response. However, he admits: “We need to step up, and we’re not stepping up at the moment.”

Instead of engaging on a militant level, though, Mr Gethins hopes to see the UK focus on long-term, reconstruction efforts. “We have been, in recent years, good at going to war,” he said. “We have not been terribly good at winning the peace.” As the UK develops a response, Mr Gethins hopes that Parliament will take the long view: “I think we need, even at this stage, to start looking at a long-term solution and a long term role for resolving these issues.”

He cited the UK’s response to the crisis in Libya as a cautionary tale. It has since been revealed that the British spent at least 13 times more on the bombing of Libya than on the rebuilding efforts afterwards (£320 million versus £25 million). “The lessons of Libya, like Iraq, is that you cannot just bomb somewhere and move on,” Mr Gethins told the Herald in July. His hope is that the government will learn from its mistakes and approach the Syrian crisis more thoughtfully. “We urgently need honesty and transparency about the UK intentions in Syria – and a strong commitment to the country following the conflict.”

How does this apply to students? Having studied IR at the University of Dundee, Mr Gethins was academically prepared for a career in politics and diplomacy. However, he said that it was his extracurricular experience that made the difference. “Being involved in the debaters union and to a limited extent student politics, that’s what I think was [most] valuable about student life.”

For students hoping to follow a career path similar to his own, if only in terms of the success he has achieved, Mr Gethins has two pieces of advice: “First things first, get stuck into your societies,” he said. “The second thing is not to be scared of doing different things. I remember after I graduated, I got a job. And then somebody offered me to go off on what was an initial six-month placement in Tbilisi, and I grabbed it will both hands. I had to give up my job at the time, but I went and did it.”

From there, he worked in a number of positions in the NGO sector. He specialised in peace building, arms control and democracy in the Caucasus and the Balkans region (among other positions), before being appointed to Special Adviser to then First Minister Alex Salmon. Now an MP himself, he is focused on providing similar opportunities for success to all of his constituents.

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, you can rest assured that Mr Gethins is committed to making Scotland the best that it can be. Even if you do not agree with his approach, his enthusiasm for his job and his genuine interest in the St Andrews student experience – as evidenced by his reaching out to The Saint personally – is encouraging in our current political climate. In a moment of political dynasticism, personal scandals and institutional secrecy, Mr Gethins is a welcome outlier.

To learn more about your MP and his policies, find Mr Gethins on Twitter (@StephenGethins) and Facebook.

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