Labour candidate Katherine Dunne won applause from students at St Mary’s University last night, when she highlighted the party’s commitment to free education.
Policies on reintroducing student grants, supporting lifelong learning and promoting pro-European values found favour with the international audience.
Conservative candidate Tania Mathias suggested that student debt might be aided by reducing the interest rates on loans. “A free degree would be the ideal – but the economy is not there yet. What’s needed is to make the loan work for you.”
Many students in the audience were sitting their final exams this week; one said her debt was already £27,000.
On schools, Sir Vince Cable, LibDem candidate criticised the Conservative government: “Money is being siphoned off for experiments with the 11+ and grammar schools.”
On Brexit, Dr Mathias said she had voted Remain, and was “still hurting after that result,” but putting that behind her, she said she wanted Theresa May in charge of the exit from the EU.
Sir Vince warned that a Conservative government “is supporting a hard, Ukip-style Brexit.”
He said his party planned to oppose the Act going through Parliament.
Dr Dunne, who oversees pan-European research projects at the locally-based National Physical Laboratory, said: ”Negotiations must be based on respect and based on our shared values. Labour is pro-European; we always will be.”
The NHS also featured in the students’ questions. Dr Mathias said she felt the health service “has always done better under a Conservative government because the economy has been stronger.”
Dr Dunne responded: “I don’t recognise what Tania says about the NHS under Conservative governments! The NHS was on its knees by 1997, when Labour rescued it.”
The university’s Students’ Union president, Zander Lavell, hosting the event, ran a poll at the end of the hustings; using an app for smartphones, the audience’s vote revealed LibDems on 45%, Labour snapping at their heels on 38%, with Conservatives trailing at 11%.