Sarah Olney defended tuition fees to angry students at Kingston University hustings for the Richmond Park candidates yesterday evening.
Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney appeared alongside Independent Caroline Shah and Pam Tatlow, representing Labour candidate Sandra Keen, whilst Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith did not show for the hustings, leading the university to empty-chair the incumbent MP.
The Richmond Park seat has one of the smallest majorities across the UK, and there were many students in the room able to vote for the first time this election.
The importance of their vote was made very clear to the candidates, particularly Mrs Olney, who asked students to vote in their university constituency instead of back home, stating it would count for more in Richmond.
She said: “If you do have the option of two places because I know some students do, Richmond Park is a really great place to vote because we had a majority of 45 last time, so it’s a more interesting place to vote in where you can make a big difference.”
Students led the questioning and, despite a Tory no-show, Mrs Olney found herself the main target for attack.
The U-turn the Lib Dems took on tuition fees during the coalition government attracted the most attention, and Mrs Olney was forced to defend the decision.
She said: “I like the idea that education is always going to be free, but realistically if you’re going to provide a quality education it has to be paid for.”
She stated the decision to treble fees was not a Lib Dem decision but one they voted for because, at that time, they valued the idea of a stable government and cooperation.
Mrs Olney argued that the fees had left finances stable for UK universities and had not been a deterrent to students coming to university.
Apologising to the room of students, she said: “I wish we hadn’t campaigned on scrapping tuition fees because I do think students contributing to their own education has been a valuable source of income for universities.
“But I am sorry that we voted to increase those fees, and I’m sorry if any of you felt let down.”
Ms Shah clashed with Mrs Olney, arguing that education was about more than money, and the fees were negatively impacting students which brought cheers from the audience.
She said: “I think we need to be careful that education in this country doesn’t just become about economics, and bringing money into the country – this is about people like you.
“The fees are too high and to be paying 6% interest on top of that, it’s a scandal. Young people shouldn’t have to carry that burden.”
Ms Tatlow also attacked Mrs Olney on fees, citing the facts that many students never pay back all of their tuition fee debt, saying outstanding loans at the end of March 2019 were at £121billion.
“This is why the system leaks like a colander, it is not sensible and not the way to fund the universities and should not be putting the pressure on students,” she added.
Addressing Mrs Olney on the role the Lib Dems played, she said: “On tuition fees, all I’m saying is the computer could’ve said no, you didn’t have to say yes.
“I’ve known so many Lib Dem MPs who said there was no alternative – there is an alternative and I’m living proof of that, I had free education, Germany has free education, Sweden has free education.”
Despite not attending, Mr Goldsmith didn’t escape attacks from the other candidates on his failures.
Ms Shah criticised his environmental actions as weak whilst Mrs Olney took aim at Mr Goldsmith for distancing himself from his party in his campaign.
She said: “One of my frustrations with Zac is when he speaks he always speaks about himself – what he would do, what he believes – when he is representing a party.
“It’s all very well for him to say he personally opposed the Heathrow expansion but nevertheless he is a member of the party and work for a government that supports it.
“He needs to be much more honest that there’s not a lot that one person can do – it’s collective action that can make a difference.”