Bath MP Don Foster talks student activism

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The National Union of Students (NUS) recently launched their ‘New Deal for the Next Generation’ general election manifesto, a campaign title which echoes that of the Liberal Democrats’ pre-manifesto or, as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg calls it, a ‘manifesto for the next generation’. Earlier this year, bathimpact spoke to Don Foster, Lib Dem MP for Bath, about the upcoming general election and the Liberal Democrats’ position on so-called ‘student issues’.

Mr Foster, who is set to step down as MP for Bath in time for next year’s election, spoke of his experiences with the student population in Bath over his twenty-two years in office. “Bath is one of very few single constituencies to be impacted by two universities, and these two student groups are contained in a compact area,” the soon-to-be retired MP said, adding that, “The two universities have had huge economic benefits; jobs have been created,” and that students have had an “impact on the night time economy” in Bath. He emphasised his appreciation for the student community in Bath further when he said, “the hidden story is that there is a phenomenal amount of voluntary work done by students within the city.”

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Bath MP Don Foster (right)

 He then went on to speak about the political efforts of the student movement in Bath, saying, “membership of student political parties is low, but membership of societies and sports clubs is high. Students aren’t particularly party political.”
When discussing past student activism, Mr Foster described the University of Bath Students’ Union battle against the Article 4 Direction as an “effective campaign”, though emphasised that he did not agree with the Union’s position on the issue. The Article 4 Direction, which was confirmed by the Liberal Democrat-led Bath and North East Somerset Council last year, placed greater restrictions on the development of Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs). This was specifically targeted at areas which have a highly concentrated student population, such as Oldfield Park, due to fears that families are being ‘pushed out’.

He then added that students have not always played their part in the political process.

“There are times of real bitter disappointment – student movements are not as vociferous as I’d like,” Mr. Foster said.
Speaking more generally about the student movement on a national level, Mr Foster said, “from time to time the student movement has impacted on politics – things like AIDs, the environment, welfare issues and sporting issues.” When asked how the student population compared to the average voter, he added, “students are more open-minded – I welcome that.”
He also criticised the term the ‘next generation’, preferring the term the ‘new generation’. He said, “I’m in favour of Votes at 16. The ‘new generation’ has the right to be heard as much as the older generation.”

Throughout this interview, Mr Foster spoke very adamantly about one thing in particular: students don’t only think about themselves in their current situation.

“I am tired of people telling me that, in voting, students look only at student issues,” the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip said, adding, “students make their decision based on a wide range of issues.”

Considering the range of policies that the NUS has outlined in their general election manifesto, which covers anything from protecting the Disabled Students Allowance to reversing the NHS Bill, it is clear that students do care about different issues, not just the policies that are deemed ‘student issues’. As Mr. Foster continuously reiterated, “the fundamental point is that, above everything, students campaign on a wide range of issues, not just student issues.”

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Ramiye Thavabalasingam is a former News & Comment Editor at bathimpact (2014/15). She writes about a number of University of Bath issues, as well as local Bath politics.

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