My thoughts on last week’s NUS Big Student Election Debate

By Gillian Reynolds

The leaders of the three main Scottish parties – Nicola Sturgeon (Scottish National Party), Anas Sarwar (Scottish Labour Party), and Douglas Ross (Scottish Conservatives) – and representatives Ross Greer (Scottish Green Party) and Carole Ford (Scottish Liberal Democrats), gathered virtually on Tuesday night for the NUS Big Student Election Debate. 

Organised by the National Union of Students (NUS), students from all over Scotland had the chance to challenge politicians on students’ issues ahead of the May 6th Scottish Parliament elections.

Image Credit: NUS Scotland

Around the one-hour mark, I was beginning to wonder whether, if Matt Crilly were at the helm of all election debates, politicians might learn to behave better. But, alas, there was another reason for their composure… independence hadn’t yet come up. The roughly twenty minutes dedicated to the topic, whilst being the only time many representatives gave an unequivocal answer, punctured an otherwise remarkably good-natured event.

 Ross Greer kicked off the debate with a powerful opening statement, citing his party’s slogan: “Vote like our future depends on it… because it does.” Standing on a platform of averting a climate emergency and social justice, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, he came across as passionate and well-informed throughout. 

Nicola Sturgeon promised students and young people that free education is and will always remain a priority for the SNP, and made a specific appeal to those who feel their futures have been threatened by Brexit, ensuring that an independent Scotland would seek to rejoin the European Union. Douglas Ross echoed Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks that young people have borne the brunt of the pandemic in certain respects, and pledged a number of student-specific policies, including piloting a bursary for estranged students. 

Carole Ford made an early impression in her assertion that Covid-19 has put us on the back foot, and we need to “get back out in front”. According to the Lib Dems, one way of doing that would be by introducing a jobs guarantee for 16-24 year olds. Anas Sarwar used his opening statement to highlight inequalities that he sees as having been exacerbated by the pandemic – zero hour contracts, tenancy rights (or lack thereof), and education.

The thoughtful questions asked covered a range of issues affecting students and young people from all walks of life. A common theme, most vocally championed by Ross Greer, but which seemed to enjoy support from all panellists, was the idea of extending student support into the summer holidays instead of only during term time. He argued that students struggled to get by during the holidays before the pandemic, but the effect of ongoing hospitality closures will make this immeasurably worse, being the sector where most students tend to work. 

A more contentious moment, however, came when the participants were asked whether they think £4.30 per hour (the current minimum wage for an apprentice in this country) is enough to live on, and if not, whether they would pledge to change it. After some polite pressing from the host, everyone agreed those undertaking an apprenticeship should be paid more, but some went to great lengths to avoid the actual phrase “not enough to live on”. Unsurprisingly, Nicola Sturgeon used this as an opportunity to highlight the limitations of the Scottish Parliament’s powers, as the minimum wage is set in Westminster, and Douglas Ross was keen to convey his opposition to state intervention in how businesses are run.

Tenancy rights, students’ mental health and education during the pandemic were amongst the other topics discussed, although, as is the norm in politics, it was mostly style over substance, with vague platitudes standing in for any concrete pledges. The only discord on rent controls was Douglas Ross’ warning against “deterring landlords from providing housing”, provoking a rare intervention from the host to confirm that those who build housing make accommodation available – not landlords. It was heartening to hear, in response to a question on trans healthcare in Scotland, support from across the political spectrum for the trans community. The representatives from the Green Party, the Lib Dems and the SNP were especially unwavering in their solidarity, while Labour and the Conservatives focused more on the healthcare aspect than perhaps the question had implied.

While there were undoubtedly insightful moments that may cut through to students, the primary skill of a politician is to evade concrete commitments at all costs, and this debate was no different. The issues students have faced as a result of the pandemic, and the effects this has had on their education, mental health and livelihoods, will only be resolved with decisive political action. The decisions taken by whoever wins power in May will speak louder than their words.

The debate has been recorded and the video recording can be viewed here.