“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland,” reads a rather grandiose monument at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. I put it rather more simply than the former First Minister when I told a student protest outside Holyrood in 2011: “If I ever vote for fees, sack me.”
Education is a right that should be available to all, not just those who can afford it. Creating more opportunities for everyone who wants to gain a place at college or university is vital for our collective prosperity and quality of life.
But this week figures on the level of student debt have thrown into sharp relief the need to start directly investing in students rather than saddling them with costs that they’ll spend their lives trying to pay off.
The Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) report shows the numbers of students receiving support and the amounts they receive. The average amount of support per student in 2015/16 was £5,720, and students from the lowest income households received loans or bursaries of £7,870 on average. Both of those figures represent an increase.
The figures come as a review is announced into the whole issue of student support. NUS Scotland has said that bursary support for the most in-need students is going in the right direction, but remains below previous record levels. The NUS points out that Scotland persists with the highest dropout rates in the UK, and improved support has a huge role to play in changing that.
So are we basically getting student finance right? There has been an increase in overall support (3.1% on last year), and an increase in the average support per student (2% on last year) but these figures include loans as well as non-repayable bursaries and grants. The statistics do show greater support for poorer students but it is mainly in the form of loans rather than grants.
There is a 4.8% drop in the number of students receiving bursaries on last year.
And if we look at the longer term trend, we see what’s really going on. Since 2006-07 there has been a 15 per cent drop in the number of students receiving bursary and grant support, a 36 per cent drop in the total amount of grant support paid out and a 24 per cent drop in the average paid per student. There has been a whopping 162 per cent rise in the total amount of loans paid out.
This shift from bursary to loans has been a consequence of protecting free tuition, and it must be addressed. The SAAS report says: “The types and value of support students received changed substantially from 2012-13, within the aim of protecting free tuition. For example, the total amount of support provided in bursaries and grants reduced by over a third, offset by a substantial (61 per cent) increase in authorisations for student loans.”
We can also see how the system helps students who need support most. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation isn’t the ideal way to measure the issue because poor families can live in rich areas, but it’s the best guide we have available. It shows that there are higher levels of support going to students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. This seems appropriate. But again bear in mind the support they’re receiving is in the form of loans. In short, we are increasing student debt for the poorest students.
It’s also worth noting that the average nursing and midwifery bursary has fallen, and indeed has seen a real terms cut over seven years. Given the crisis in our health service due to increasing demands and lack of workforce planning, it’s bizarre that we are undermining the support we are giving to the new wave of nurses and midwives we so badly need.
The Scottish Greens’ support for free education is as solid as the proverbial rock, but this week’s figures show that on its own, this isn’t enough.
We must see financial support continuing to increase with inflation, and we must see college students getting equal entitlement to bursary support that university students have. I’d also like to see a Summer hardship fund to help students through the non-study months and more broadly let’s design a social security system that doesn’t claw back student support payments.
The immediate priority is to move away from loan-based support which is clearly leaving students, particularly those coming from the most deprived backgrounds, saddled with significant debts. The SNP came to power in 2007 promising to abolish student debt.
If we care about ensuring the next generation is not only healthy and well educated, but also debt-free, we must find a way to secure a brighter future for Scotland’s students.
This article first appeared in the National