Published in The Student, May 3 2011
With Julia Symmes Cobb
The Student rating – 3/5: Gray has clearly been thoroughly media trained by his party, which can sometimes make him sound artificial and overly-rehearsed. But he knows the nuts and bolts of policy and impressed us with his seemingly small but innovative and original policy solutions. To his credit, he discussed various facets of the student experience other than fees and cuts and appeared to have an excellent grasp of the myriad challenges faces higher education.
Even though the polls might say otherwise, Iain Gray certainly makes an entrance like a man in the running to be First Minister, sweeping majestically into the Pleasance courtyard in a sleek black people carrier. Jumping out energetically and striding across the cobbles, he greets us warmly and seems eager to talk to us, some distance from the ‘Gray by name, grey by nature’ epithet that the media has attached to him.Times like these, he begins, are what the proponents of devolution had in mind: “With the Tories back, it is really the moment that the Scottish Parliament was created for. It allows us to see what the Tories are doing in England – to the NHS, to local councils, and we can be safe in the knowledge that it won’t happen here. The Scottish Parliament has in the past made a big difference, but now it can make the biggest difference of all.”
When challenged that devolution can’t completely protect Scots from the impending cuts, he agrees and prepares to give the ‘difficult decisions’ speech that has become standard issue for all major party politicians in the credit crunch era: “At a time like this, we need to ask the public sector workforce for a significant degree of pay restraint in order to protect jobs, but we’ve also said that in doing that we would introduce a living wage of £7.15 per hour across the public sector and use public sector contracts to roll that out into the private sector as well.
“There is a difficult decision to be made there, but at the same time you can also apply Labour values, we can protect the incomes of those at the bottom of the pay scale so they don’t pay the highest price for a situation they didn’t create.”
Gray has clearly had extensive media training which he taken on board, perhaps a little too much, squeezing his party’s campaign theme ‘fighting for what really matters’ into what feels like every other sentence, something that becomes trying after a while.His own personal experience with the issues that ordinary Scots face is a theme he returns to again and again throughout our forty minutes with him: his way into the fees issue is to emphasize his own journey from a modest background to his current position by way of a free higher education at Edinburgh University.
“When I was at school, folk like myself didn’t usually go to university, but at that time there was a big change and I got the opportunity that my parents did not. That opened up opportunities that had never been possible before; I got a chance to come here to Edinburgh University to study physics, and then go onto be a teacher, and then around the world with Oxfam and ultimately it gave me the chance I have today – to run for First Minister of Scotland.”
Introducing a element of charging for higher education would discourage young people from his background from accessing opportunities to the extent that he has: “We believe that there should not be that additional barrier of debt and so in managing the decline in resources, we will prioritize that.”
A worry that he draws attention to several times is that the confidence of young people who do not come from families with a university tradition can be relatively fragile. He argues that anything that puts further barriers between them and higher education can only be a bad thing: “I remember when I was a teacher, arguing with my sixth year students, trying to get them to raise their aspirations. I remember trying to persuade a young guy who was better at physics than I was at his age to go not just to college but onwards to university and I can still remember him saying ‘university’s not for the likes of me.’ That still hasn’t changed: there are still large numbers of young people for whom going to university is a big jump, and you need to help them to make that jump.”
Independence has been the SNP’s Achilles’ heel throughout the last parliament, distracting them from – that phrase again – “the things that really matter”:“The SNP can’t say, ‘never mind independence’, because that is their core belief. They will always, always be distracted from the other things by that and have been in the past four years. They have spent an inordinate amount of time and a not insignificant amount of public money on a national conversation which nobody wanted to take part in, and on preparing a national referendum on independence, which they failed to bring to the Parliament four times.”
He’s on shaky ground, though, in going further to claim that there is causative link between the SNP being distracted by their desire for independence and the fact that unemployment increased under them, and we move him quickly onto the next topic.He reacts angrily to the suggestion that Labour has been copying SNP policy and suggests that in fact Labour have been in front on a number of key issues: “We were the first party to promise an apprenticeship guarantee, to bring back the future jobs fund and to commit to a living wage, the SNP came out for those things only after we did. And in every instance what they have done has fallen short. The SNP’s commitment to a living wage has only gone as far as the sectors the government is directly responsible for – the civil service and the NHS. That’s not good enough. It has to go right across the public sector, and through procurement contracts, to the private sector as well.Gray – a former Enterprise Minister – finally comes into his own the question of graduate employment. He is clearly extremely well-acquainted with the familiar problems of economic development and has done an impressive amount of planning whilst in opposition: “in the renewable energy sector, only ten per cent of the jobs that follow on from the projects that are taking place here end up in Scotland. We have to change that. The solution to that comes in matching graduates coming out of universities with industries and areas with skills shortages. We need to improve the links between universities, their students and industry.
“More businesses need to get involved with undergraduates – helping them through university, sponsoring them, giving them employment opportunities in their holidays so that you create a good relationship. That’s a win-win situation; the employer gets someone who understands what is expected and the student gets valuable experience.”Gray is the only party leader to discuss aspects of the reform of higher education other than fees and funding. He makes much out of the need to widen access to the top universities, but he emphasizes that this would not involve bullying universities, but would instead be involve a more sociological approach, looking at why bright students from poorer backgrounds don’t win places at the best Scottish universities. “For too long,” he says, “have the government and principles put off a comprehensive reassessment of the sector; we need to look at higher education in the round; institutions, the student experience, the role of colleges, fees. That sort of exercise should have been done a long time ago.”
Gray is not quite the dull Eeyore he’s often portrayed as. He is clearly passionate and engaged with his programmes for government and seems to relish the detail of policy. If he becomes First Minister, he might lack the bombast of Salmond and the nobility of Dewar, but he would likely exceed public expectations and be quietly impressive in the way that he impressed us with his genuine concern for and knowledge of the issues that effect students.