Interview: Julian Huppert
Cambridgeshire MP, Julian Huppert talks to Varsity about rebelling against the Lib Dems and why he voted against the rise in tuition fees.
Julian Huppert is not your stereotypical MP. For a start, he is part of a dying breed of non-career politicians. And then there’s the fact that he holds a PhD in Biological Chemistry from Trinity. You have to hope he is therefore one of the few politicians recently surveyed who would actually knew what the correct probability of getting two heads is when a coin is tossed twice (something I’m fairly certain is taught even in today’s GCSE maths).
Inevitably, the talk immediately turns to the recent statistics showing an increase of applications to Cambridge, particularly from state school applicants, despite the increased fees. He admits to being surprised about the increase, albeit "really pleased". “I believe passionately that higher education should be free” he says but admits that deciding exactly how to fund it will always be an issue. As an undergrad at Cambridge when Labour first introduced tuition fees, he has campaigned against the initial introduction of fees, top-up fees and now also against the latest rise. Huppert also thinks that the fees may yet deter students from applying, and says that the impact on mature and postgraduate students will be more severe than it was on undergraduates.
Perhaps most importantly to students, Huppert stood true to his pre-election promise to vote against the proposal to increase fees, unlike some of his fellow Lib Dem MPs. The plan when he ran for MP in 2000 was always to “stand up for the things I care about”, and he acknowledges that as a result he has “rebelled a number of times.” He is keen to stress that he is not an anarchist though, and says that “I don’t like rebelling, it’s better to try and change what the government is doing instead, and then if you succeed you don’t need to rebel”. All the same, he admits that "we don't win all the fights with George Osborne".
Huppert argues that in Australia’s university system, on which the current fee model is loosely based, the result has been bigger universities taking over small ones which are struggling financially. In Cambridge he says “we have three great universities [ARU, Cambridge, and the Open University], all aiming to do different things, and to lose any one of them would be a great shame.” He remains positive that the fee system will not be changed soon, though, as the “pain and anguish is too great.”
As to whether students should forgive Liberal Democrats for breaking their election pledges, he admits that trust issues are currently a problem for all parties. He is however “keen on the idea that people apologise when we get it wrong” and is critical of the current climate in Whitehall were admitting that a policy is flawed is seen as the worst possible thing to do: "why should politicians pretend we never make mistakes?". In science, he argues, there is nothing wrong with having lots of ideas and then discarding the ones that prove to be wrong. Politics, he argues, should be more like that, with an emphasis on “evidence informed policy”, rather than sticking to a clearly flawed plan just to save face. Otherwise, he says, the result is situations where, as recently, “Justine Greening was effectively fired for standing up for Government policy.”
With his pro-honesty stance on politicians apologizing, it is hardly surprising that he found the recent autotuned Nick Clegg apology video “very well done.” After all, he added, “what other party has a leader who’s been in the Top 40?”
On the subject of local issues he says that “being an MP in Cambridge is a very unique position” due to the variety of people in the city. He is particularly keen on improving the cycle network both in the city and surronding countryside. “Cambridge is great nationally” he says, “but if you compare us to somewhere like Holland we’re only average; there is still more to be done. Improving the infrastructure, having separated cycle paths and even reassuring people they can cycle in normal clothes are all necessary to improve the state of cycling in this country.”
Despite all the current doom and gloom in the papers, Huppert is optimistic about the future - particularly for young people. He is keen to stress that he is happy to assist students with any problems they might encounter, especially if a college can't or won't help. He appreciates that students care deeply about a range of issues, and insists that we have the power to affect what he - as our MP - says and does. Sorry to Girton and Homerton students, though: your areas are covered by a different MP.