As part of the green paper discussions, I have held regular meetings with all the key stakeholders in the higher education sector, including NUS Scotland. Most recently, NUS officials attended the higher education green paper summit meeting in Glasgow on 1 March 2011. NUS Scotland also meets my officials regularly; only last week, they met to discuss how they can continue to contribute to policy development in a number of areas, including how we can improve student support over the coming years.
Did those who attended the most recent meeting with the cabinet secretary express pleasure at the recent budget and its commitment to further education funding? Did they welcome the certainty in that funding, which is in marked contrast to the contradictory statements that were mentioned earlier and Labour’s failure adequately to cost and fund its fees pledge, which looks like leading to another betrayal of students as in 1997 and 2001, when it promised no fees, prior to their introduction?
There is only one party in the chamber that has never voted for fees. I make that point so that it is clearly understood by the wider Scottish population that there is one party that has been consistent in its position on fees and will remain so.
I point strongly to the support for students that I am keen to bring forward. In these difficult times, I am conscious that every part of public spending is under pressure, but in the part of the budget that was my responsibility I sought first to ensure that there was no diminution of support for students; we managed to do that.
We did not, for example, abolish the education maintenance allowance as was done south of the border, although it was claimed that we had done so by the former First Minister, Jack McConnell, in his Christmas message to the good people of Wishaw. One should not mislead people during the festive season. There was no cut nor reduction to the EMA, which remains central to my plans for student support. The cash value of student support has continued in place, and I worked very hard with my colleague John Swinney to ensure that the support for students through bursaries was increased, which was a measure that the Liberal Democrats requested. We succeeded in that, largely because students themselves were very keen on it.
In all those circumstances, student support remains central to the process in which we are engaged, and I want to continue to grow it.