The Boar interviews Kamal Ahmed: Student finance, student housing and BBC impartiality

Kamal Ahmed, the BBC economics editor and former business editor, spoke to Warwick students on Monday 30 April, in an event hosted by Warwick PPE society.

Before the talk, The Boar spoke to Mr Ahmed about the government’s review into post-18 education, affordable housing for students and recent criticism of the BBC.

An interview with Kamal Ahmed

Elliot Mulligan (The Boar): The government announced a review into higher education earlier this year. What do you think the outcomes of this review will be?

Kamal Ahmed: Well my daughter is about to go to university and it is interesting talking with her about debt levels and what she understands by that. I’ve not looked at what the government is doing on student finance specifically, but clearly the government needs to take care that whatever the system, and however it works, it doesn’t act as a disincentive to people going to university or higher education. If you think about the big challenges that the nation faces, and therefore the government faces, it’s about how we navigate the new world of digital, the new world of artificial intelligence and how we skill people for the 21st century.

When I went to university, a very small percentage went, and particularly young people from comprehensive schools. That was the system as it had been built since the 1960s after the growth of the polytechnics. Then of course there was the huge rise in student numbers and the argument was made that the only way to fund that would be by students contributing to the system themselves and not just relying on the taxpayer to do that. That was an argument that appeared to have a degree of consensus around it.

The question for the government will be how elastic is the idea that students are willing to take on debt for the betterment of their higher education. That’s the main thing the government is going to have to keep in mind – to ensure that you have a funding system that is sustainable, that is agreed with by the public but also that it does not act as a disincentive to young people to go to university and further education.

One thing that students are concerned with is housing. There have been recent reports that house prices in London are starting to fall. Is this true, and if so, is this a good sign for students?

There does seem to be some softening of the market in London, and I think in the South East as well. It’s got a long way to go before it’s good news for students, given that the London house prices are so far above average incomes. One thing I would say which is more concerning is the difficulty of building more houses. The National House Building Council’s figures showed last week that over the last year, the number of new start builds for housing actually fell. Now, some of that was down to the terrible weather of the last three months. Nevertheless, the country is still an awful long way from the government’s 300,000 houses a year. Outside London it’s a slightly different picture. But, if we get to a situation where house prices are softer and real incomes are rising more quickly, that will take a little bit of pressure off young people trying to buy a house.

I think my big worry is the next generation of home buyers – will the majority only be people whose parents have houses? I think there is a danger if the only way to become a home owner is if your parents own their own home and can pass on wealth via property. I think that we have to be able to give young people access to the housing market, young people who are not in the advantageous position of having what’s called ‘the bank of mum and dad’ to help them.

Sajid Javid, who’s just become Home Secretary, I know it was something that drove him hugely. I got to know Sajid a little bit when he was at Housing, and something that drove him was the idea that if the wealth divide became clear in property, that would not be advantageous to the UK. I think the role of Housing Associations, the role of councils in building houses has to be looked at.

You mention Sajid Javid and what drives him, what drives you in the work that you do?

Trying to explain the world to people, as the BBC has a very broad audience. I was business editor of the Sunday Telegraph and there you were speaking to a slightly more expert audience, as these were the business pages of the newspaper. What is very important about the BBC is that we have to explain a complex world to an audience that may only be with us for half an hour a day. They may be sitting and watching the bulletin at night or listening to the Today programme in the morning.

Our audience research shows that economics is always put at the top of people’s concerns. Have they got enough money at the end of the month? Are their real incomes going up? Will they have a job? Are interest rates going to change? All those types of issues. Trying to explain economics in a way people understand is absolutely essential and a vital part of what the BBC is here for.

Why are we journalists? We’re journalists because we want to try and explain issues to people and reveal things to people that mean they are able to participate in the world around them. That’s incredibly important. It’s an incredibly important job for the BBC, it’s an incredibly important role for journalists in general.

I’ve been fortunate to work for The Guardian, The Observer and The Telegraph, and now the BBC. Think of your audience first. What do they need to know about the world around them to make sense of the world around them, to be able to participate in the world around them?  That’s what drives me.

How does it make you feel when you see people like Alastair Campbell and Lord Adonis criticising the BBC on Twitter?

Well, the BBC has got incredibly high standards, it’s important that we listen to our critics – but it’s important that we are not defined by them. We, as journalists, are very careful about how we report the world around us, we make judgement calls on what is important and how to report those issues.

We live in a passionate time. Alistair Campbell, Lord Adonis, are passionate people on one side of the debate, we get criticism from passionate people on the other side of the debate, on the Leave side of the debate. I think that it’s very important that the BBC sticks to its journalistic craft. Impartiality, non-bias coverage.

I hope and I believe that anyone would be hard pressed to know what I think about Brexit, in my private life. I think that it’s incredibly important that you leave any of your beliefs at the door of the BBC. When you come into the BBC, all the editors work in the same way. Whether it’s Laura (Kuenssberg), or Simon Jack, we are driven by trying to explain why things are happening with due impartiality and a non-biased approach, but nevertheless being able to say when things are negative. I think as long as we approach things in that way, as long as it’s not just on the one hand on the other hand because that’s not useful for our audiences, we need to be able to make judgements about what’s important.

If there are negatives, which the Remain side may see as not negative for them or the Leave side may see as not negative for them, but we believe they are, we need to be able to say that. But, we listen to the robust criticism that there has been. As you say, Lord Adonis had a complaint directly about me and has written to us. I’ve responded at some length, privately to him, and I hope I explained why we made the decisions we make over stories. But I think that it’s really important that impartiality, non-biased coverage but using judgement are all put together. They are the absolute cornerstones of how the BBC covers these very passionate debates

What advice would you give to students who want to get into journalism?

Connections, hard work, a little bit of belligerence, and an ability to step back and see themes rather than getting stuck in the weeds of each little story. The easiest and clearest thing is always this – be driven by your audience. I’ve done lots of interviews with people trying to get into journalism, and they often talk about their own motivations, they want to be a writer, they want to do this or that. What I’m listening for is, ‘I care about my reader, I care about my audience, I care about the viewer, I care about the listener’. You’ve got to understand what is it that your audiences need to help them navigate the world around them. If you are driven by that, you will be successful, because if you don’t understand your audience and what drives them, I’m not quite sure why you’re a journalist.


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