Voices of students and staff must be at heart of education debate

This week our education spokesperson Ross Greer spoke in a Holyrood debate on colleges and universities. Here's what he had to say... 

Without question, our colleges and universities contribute immensely to the Scottish economy and to our society. No member should dispute the opportunities that they provide to individuals, communities and the country as a whole. We can all acknowledge that, and we have all done so.

However, in this session of Parliament, the question is whether we are willing to give the institutions, students and staff the support that they need. The Greens believe that an entitlement-based support system for students in further education would be an ideal place to start. Currently, there is immense uncertainty for FE students about the funding that is available to them. In 2015, more than half of all FE students were not sure how much financial support was available, and most of those students reported that that uncertainty made the decision to undertake their course more difficult.

The uncertainty comes from a funding support system that is based on fixed sums of money rather than the needs of students in further education. A freedom of information request from the National Union of Students found that, by half way through the year, two thirds of colleges had already committed 100 per cent—or more—of their FE bursary budget.

The situation means that the vast majority of colleges use core teaching funds to make up shortfalls. Many are forced to use their discretionary budget, which is intended to support students who have an immediate financial need, to make up for the shortfall in the bursary budget. Although it is entirely understandable that colleges have felt the need to do that, a system that makes it necessary to transfer money between equally vital funds is not the system that FE students need.

When almost a third of colleges have to stop applications to or limit the amount that they award from the hardship fund because that budget has been diverted, there is a clear need to move to an entitlement-based system that is centred on students’ needs. If we do nothing else, we should treat our further education students as the equals of higher education students. There should certainly not be such a disparity in support, depending on whether a student has come through the doors of a college or a university.

Every pound that is invested in colleges results in a net return to the taxpayer of almost £6. We cannot continue with a system that creates such uncertainty that it puts many people off applying in the first place, and which can hold people back from gaining the skills and qualifications that they need, not just to prosper as individuals but to contribute towards improving Scotland’s economy.

There are challenges to moving to an entitlement-based system, not least the risk that students who made use of such a system would see their access to social security reduced. A move to an entitlement-based system should protect students from such reductions. We are keen for the Scottish Government to investigate the options in that regard.

An area that is key to supporting all students but in particular those who face barriers to education is the provision of support over the summer months. We are all aware of the serious issue of students dropping out of their course over the summer, primarily as a result of financial pressures. The issue particularly affects students who resit exams.

That is why the Scottish Greens have called for a national hardship fund that can support students between academic years, rebalancing their bursaries or extending payments to cover the summer. Given that last year most students felt that they had little control over their own finances and half seriously considered leaving their course, the need for such a fund is clear. The establishment of a national hardship fund would not only reduce the number of students who drop out of their course but tackle the serious problem of commercial loans, which contribute considerably to the unsustainable levels of debt with which too many students leave education.

We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to review student support, but of course that is not the whole story. Staff at our colleges and universities have faced real pressure in recent years. I highlight the work of the two major unions in the sector: the University and College Union and the Educational Institute of Scotland Further Education Lecturers Association. The unions have continued to represent their members in the face of unequal pay, real-terms pay cuts and senior management who are indifferent or worse, and they have won notable victories. As Iain Gray said, disputes continue; staff at the University of Edinburgh are on strike today.

Higher education staff have faced a real-terms pay cut of 15 per cent over the past seven years. If we are serious about the benefits that our universities bring, as members of all parties seem to be, can we really see that as acceptable? In a week when yet another university principal hit the headlines—for receiving a salary for his second job that is equal to that of MSPs on top of the frankly obscene salary that he gets from his institution—it is no surprise that staff morale is suffering.

Like the minister, my party and I are committed to keeping Scotland’s universities tuition free for our students. Like the minister, I was the first member of my family to go to university—in an ironic twist of fate I did not complete my course, due to a job offer I could not refuse, which the minister herself made and for which I am still grateful.

The debate must go further than focusing only on tuition fees, and the Greens welcome the Government’s commitment in relation to the findings of the commission on widening access. We will push the Government to be bolder and we will challenge it where necessary, but we will also work to ensure that our students and staff at universities and colleges receive the support that they deserve. It is their priorities and their voices that must be at the heart of this debate.