Dr Ben Spencer MP Answers Your Questions

On Friday 19 March, your Sabbatical Officer team met with local MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, Dr Ben Spencer, to ask your questions on key issues affecting students.

Image of Dr Ben Spencer MP on a Zoom call with your Sabbatical Officers

On Friday 19 March, myself and the rest of the Sabbatical Officer team met with local MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, Dr Ben Spencer, as part of the work on the We’re Here for You campaign we have been running this term. We asked you, as students, what you wanted to ask Dr Spencer, and noted down the responses to these questions below.

Introduction from Dr Spencer

Dr Spencer expressed that he has huge sympathy for students, who have been vilified in the press this year. He remembers his university days with fondness, and can’t imagine a university experience like the one that has occurred in COVID times. He particularly feels that entering the job market is of great concern, and is keen to work on supporting young people to enter the job market as the time when you leave education is a magical period for career prospects and job opportunities. He is also particularly worried about the impact of COVID on graduating students.

Q&A

Q. Students have had a much disrupted university experience this academic year, which was nothing like they expected when they enrolled. Students deserve compensation as the experience has been different, and in many areas of lower quality. Why are the government not providing tuition fee refunds or removing student debt? Why are the government not increasing funding to universities to provide students with tuition fee refunds?

Dr Spencer explained that he hears where we are coming from in regards to tuition fees, expressing that university is now a product for students and that students are buying an educational experience. Part of this experience is everything else like the clubs and societies you get involved with and therefore students are missing this as part of the process and experience of university. He acknowledged that each university is currently at liberty to act differently in response to this but feels there needs to be a consistency of approach. He stated that tuition refunds are not going to happen because it is too expensive for the Government to either remove student debt or fund universities. He feels there is a much stronger argument to knock off or drop student debt interest rates, and expressed that this is something the Government needs to do. Dr Spencer referred to the previous Augar report, which was mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, which spoke about the differential interest rates on student loans in comparison to other types of debt; he is hoping that something will happen in the near future to remove this disparity. In regards to totally writing off student debt, he feels this is something that will not happen due to the current economic situation. Dr Spencer explained that the Government is currently investing in programmes such as the Kickstart Scheme, and asked everyone to reflect on where they would rather money is spent. In reality, most home UK students never pay off their student debt under the current system as this is a different type of debt, compared to other traditional debts. His priority would therefore be around keeping universities liquid or financially stable, and investing in employment opportunities.

Dr Spencer suggested that for students the best argument for getting money back is to go to your institution directly. However, he acknowledged that this argument is circular as the Government would then need to bail out universities if they were under pressure financially.

Q. Following on from the recent events concerning Sarah Everard that have increased attention to women’s safety, we are looking to lobby the local council to reinstate the street lights around campus as they are usually turned off at midnight, as they are in all of Surrey. What are your thoughts on this idea? Would you be able to help us change this current practice?

Dr Spencer thanked the Sabbatical Officers for this very important question on the timely issue. The tragic events of Sarah focused everyone’s minds in terms of the safety of women. Dr Spencer expressed for him the most depressing thing about this situation was how it reiterates the acceptance of negative behaviour towards women, which happens a lot in society, and has reflected on this narrative very seriously.

Dr Spencer has recently been in contact with Matt Furniss (Cabinet Member for Highways), who has raised questions around street lighting. Dr Spencer expressed that it is inappropriate in his opinion to have a blanket response to all of Surrey when it comes to the street lighting. If individuals have concerns, they should speak to the local police force and raise local issues with councillors. Dr Spencer feels there are multiple considerations regarding the street lights, including the importance of safety as well as the environmental impact of having street lights on 24/7. Dr Spencer agreed that rather than having all street lights on all the time, it would make more sense to consider each area specifically. Dr Spencer asked us to put together a list of streets and areas around the campus where this would be a key issue, and it would be beneficial to increase street lighting. We will be taking this conversation forward with Dr Spencer and our local councillors.

Q. What are the government going to do to support graduates this year, who are graduating into an incredibly difficult job market due to the pandemic?

Dr Spencer was clear that the Kickstart Scheme is the primary piece of support available for everyone under the age of 25. In this scheme, the Government pays the wages of the employee, as they are taken on by the local employer. Often the scheme includes training and apprenticeships as well. There are 25 businesses in the Runnymede and Weybridge constituency that are offering placements. This scheme is not specifically focused on graduates, but is available to all under 25 and has had billions invested into it by the Government.

Dr Spencer also believes that helping people get into employment is a primary issue, which can be addressed by lifting restrictions and getting businesses open again. He stated that the Roadmap out of Lockdown has helped provide a plan for this and that young people, women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, and disabled people have been disproportionally affected by COVID in relation to employment.

Locally Dr Spencer is planning to set up meetings between our local schools, Royal Holloway University, and local businesses, to see what can be done locally to support the job market and those leaving education. Dr Spencer expressed that the key thing that needs to be done after restrictions, is to support jobs and get people back in employment.

Q. What are your thoughts on the proposed Freedom of Speech policy? This policy would mean that guest speaker events have to abide by less processes than our usual student group events, such as risk assessments and health and safety policies. How do we ensure that our events are safe, if student groups no longer have to follow these processes when a guest speaker is invited?

Dr Spencer thanked the Sabbatical Officers for this really good question, however, he has not looked in great detail as to how the policy will be applied. He remembers his time at university very well and feels it was very important to be exposed to different views during his time as a young student. He felt this challenged and changed his perspective on many different things, and he enjoyed this ability to be challenged. Dr Spencer feels the plurality of freedom of thought, in the sense of challenging issues, was a cherished and important part of university for him. Dr Spencer acknowledged that freedom of speech has limits when it gets into hate speech and criminal statements, but he reflected on the recent high profile stories, which identify for him a worrying sort of trend around no-platforming and a move towards the idea of saying anything someone may find offensive, which is pushing the boundary of free speech. Dr Spencer reflected on a quote; ‘no one has a right not to be offended’. He feels there are issues around student groups and students’ unions no-platforming people, whether or not you agree with them. He stated that speakers on all sides have been no-platformed, and thinks it is an issue that needs to tackled. Dr Spencer expressed the view that small interest groups should still have the ability to bring whoever they want to their events. He feels the threshold for not speaking should be very high, and similar to the criminal threshold.

He expressed that he could see how someone could use health and safety assessment to block people from coming to speak on a controversial topic by way of indicating that the speaker could cause stress to those attending, and therefore those administrating don’t think that the guest speaker should come along because of this potential harm. He expressed concern over the danger of deliberate maladministration.

As Sabbatical Officers, we made it very clear that we disagreed with this comment and that was not how any of the policies are enacted at Royal Holloway Students’ Union.

Q. You recently voted in favour of a bill that would give the police greater powers to restrict protests, that would enable the Home Secretary to unilaterally determine the legality of a demonstration and that would make causing ‘serious annoyance’ a crime, punishable by ten years in prison. How do you justify this and how do you propose students invoke their rights to peaceful assembly and protest in the future?

Dr Spencer answered that first and foremost, he feels that peaceful protest and assembly is an essential part of democracy. He felt there has been misrepresentation about the powers proposed in the bill. He explained that the bill came about in response to tackling issues from a few years ago. A particular example he highlighted was action taken by the national Extinction Rebellion group to block access to a hospital in London by demonstrating on a bridge. He felt that the group had decided themselves who had the urgent medical need to cross the bridge to the hospital and who did not. He explained that the protest blocked ambulances. Dr Spencer expressed he felt this action was scandalous and that he was outraged about this, saying that police could not easily manage, change or enforce against this. Dr Spencer acknowledged that he very much supports tackling climate change and forms of protest, but he has seen groups creating a series of behaviours that are not only disruptive but also cause a great deal of harm, with limited ability for police to manage and deal with this. He continued by acknowledging that the bill was drafted way before recent events tackling protests going forward. He stated that this will not be legislation used to stop people from gathering to protest, but is focused on dealing with hard-line type focus groups, which represent a minority of people.

Final thoughts

We would like to thank Dr Spencer for taking the time to meet with us and answer student questions, I hope you find his responses informative. We will be continuing to engage in the We’re Here for You campaign, following national conversations and providing resources for students on the five key issues identified.