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Conservative MP and Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan talks to Epigram about sexism at university, mental health and how Brexit will affect universities.

With Labour’s self-immolation under Jeremy Corbyn continuing apace, you might expect a Conservative former-Education Secretary to be cock-a-hoop about the way things are going in Britain.

Speaking last week to the Bristol University Conservative Association about ‘politics in 2017’, however, Nicky Morgan MP was in reflective mood, expressing concerns about the lack of credible opposition to Tory rule in parliament, discrimination on campuses and Brexit.

‘There is a sort of slightly casual misogyny and sexism [at university]’

Defining herself early on as a ‘one-nation Conservative’, the former Cameron ally confessed that Conservative backbenchers would ‘rather anybody else’ to be Labour Party leader than Jeremy Corbyn.

‘It is vital that there is a viable opposition to the Conservative Government’, Morgan explained.

A contemporary at Oxford University of luminaries such as Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Damian Hinds MP and ex-parliamentarian, Louise Mensch, the member for Loughborough values having considered voices on both sides of the aisle in the House of Commons. ‘It’s nice to have some really old friends out there’, Morgan recalled, also speaking enthusiastically about the campaigning work of Labour moderates, such as Jo Cox MP, killed last year, and Rachel Reeves, the Leeds West MP.

It is clear that Morgan is enjoying life on the backbenches, with the freedoms that grants her to speak more candidly about the issues of the day than she might have when in the Cabinet.

Been to see Nicky Morgan in uni. Great to chat about Bristol, Brexit and mental health. Quotes in next issue.

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Harriet Harman reopened the debate on sexism at university recently, alleging that she had been offered top grades by a lecturer in return for sexual favours – and Morgan opened up to Epigram about her experiences of discrimination on campuses.

‘There is a sort of slightly casual misogyny and sexism [at university]’, Morgan claimed.

Although the former Women and Equalities Minister admitted that she ‘honestly can’t think of anything at university that happened’ to her, with regards to sexism, she does consider it a live issue at British universities.

Speaking more generally about sexism in Britain, Morgan opined: ‘occasionally people will say things and you’ll think ‘hang on a second, would you say that to a man? Probably not’.

Though sexism remains problematic across British campuses, instances of racism have been in the spotlight at Bristol over the last few months. In January, two students were accused of ‘blacking-up’ at a Redland house party. Meanwhile, black Bristol students brought national attention to racial discrimination at the University last month, revealing their own experiences of abuse at Bristol.

Morgan is reluctant to ‘tar everybody who wanted to leave the EU with one particular brush’, but is concerned by rising levels of hate crime at universities and in Britain, especially post-Brexit.

‘Over the last few years, when I first became an MP in 2010, people used to say to me that they wanted to make a point about immigration – they’d say “I’m not a racist, but…”

‘Most of their points were not racist; they wanted to express a concern about communities around them that were changing and about language’.

What concerns Morgan, however, is that ‘people don’t feel the need to say that anymore, they just come out with things; they’ll say “there’s too many of X here” or “there’s too many of Y here”’.

‘We must not give succour to this’

A Remain-supporting moderate, Nicky believes it is ‘incumbent on politicians’ and students to ‘push back on those sorts of attitudes’.

‘We’ve had incidents in Loughborough too’, the constituency MP laments. But Morgan is certain that students must push back on these attitudes: ‘This sort of behaviour, hate crime, discrimination, is completely unacceptable and is not what modern Britain is about’.

‘We must not give succour to this’, Morgan tells students.

Rocking back in her chair in the Physics Building’s Frank Lecture Theatre, the one-time Stronger In campaigner is more sanguine about Brexit than her public persona might suggest. Initially caricatured in the autumn as a rent-a-critic of the May government, Morgan stops short in 2017 of criticising the government for its approach to leaving the European Union.

Indeed, Morgan was at pains to remind students that although ‘we are leaving the EU; we’re not leaving Europe’.
In fleshing out what she sees her role in the Brexit process over the course of the parliament, Morgan articulated the need to safeguard ‘things like the Erasmus scheme and Horizon 2020’ and also research projects that are ‘reliant on EU funding’.

‘Looking for more certainty around that’ will be one of the principal goals of this ex-Economic Secretary to the Treasury.

Recalling her Treasury days, Morgan notes that Brexit must not ‘fatally undermine our economy… because without the jobs and the taxes that people pay, we can’t afford to pay for essential public services’.

‘Control has to come back to parliament’

For these reasons, and because ‘we rely heavily on the EU for our economy’, Morgan feels that ‘it’s really important that we do have a deal’ – rather than falling back on World Trade Organisation trading tariffs.

There’s nothing quite like the zeal of a convert, though, and the Loughborough MP, who voted to trigger Article 50 at every reading, seemed enthused by the restoration of full parliamentary sovereignty.

‘People who wanted to leave talk about “Taking Back Control”. Well, that control has to come back to parliament – and I’m very much in favour of parliament being heavily involved in supporting Government negotiations’, the former Minister beamed.

Morgan was further encouraged by the fact that since Brexit ‘our economy has remained very strong, which gives confidence to those who wanted to leave’.

‘I very much hope that for Bristol students and those who are about to graduate and graduate in the next couple of years the economy remains strong and there are jobs’.

Morgan warned that if certain voters felt ‘emboldened to say things that they would not otherwise say’ by the Brexit vote, then students must more boldly still ‘welcome people from overseas to come and study and to work and to live here’.

‘Likewise, students from Bristol and elsewhere, should go and spend time overseas and work overseas and live there and contribute, as well’.

‘Don’t make hasty decisions’

Morgan comes back, time and again, to this theme of outward-looking ‘internationalism’, and is frustrated by the lack of assurances given to international students at Bristol thus far.

Disappointed by this ‘uncertainty’, Morgan admitted that she had ‘hoped that Britain might give a sort of unilateral commitment [to EU students]’.

However, Morgan does temper her disappointment, suggesting that ‘the PM has been really clear that she absolutely wants to get an early deal on EU nationals remaining here’.

‘The Home Secretary has given reassurances to MPs this week, and I and other MPs will continue to make the point repeatedly’, Morgan vowed.

Asked if she might directly appeal to international students at Bristol, the Tory MP spoke with passion. ‘Please, don’t panic; don’t make any hasty decisions; don’t plan to think “I’m not welcome here anymore, I’m going to go home or go somewhere different”’.

‘Give it a bit of time’, Morgan continued, reiterating that ‘the PM has said this is an early thing that she wants to get sorted in negotiations’ and that ‘we’ve got to trust her on that’.

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