The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-06843, in the name of Hugh Henry, on student support. I invite those members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak button. The debate is extremely tight for time, so I advise members that they will have to be disciplined in keeping to the time allocated if we are to call everyone who wishes to speak.
I call Hugh Henry to speak to and move the motion. You have 10 minutes, Mr Henry.
We have heard a lot recently about the Scottish Government’s determination to help students from lower-income households to succeed in higher education. Indeed, allegedly tuition fees were scrapped to encourage those students to access a university place. The rhetoric is all there; sadly, the reality gives the lie to that commitment.
Just this week, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, who was hand-picked by Mike Russell to advise on changes in governance in our universities, said that the main beneficiaries of free tuition are middle-class parents who do not have to pay fees for children who would be more likely to go to university in any case. He pointed out that the current tuition fees policy does not support people from poorer backgrounds, who would not have had to make any contribution anyway, whatever the system.
Professor von Prondzynski is not alone in that analysis. Last week, Professor Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh pointed out that the proportion of students from working-class backgrounds at Scotland’s ancient universities has fallen. She said that
“Overall, young people from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to go to university”, compared with those from better-off families. She has also claimed that, to date, free undergraduate tuition has not markedly altered the pattern of recruitment to Scottish universities.
What other challenges might there be in addressing the problem? Clearly, student debt is a major issue. The Scottish National Party came to power in 2007 promising to write off student debt. Scottish Labour said that it could not be done—I remember at the time Allan Wilson being derided by Fiona Hyslop and Nicola Sturgeon, but the SNP persisted in saying that the debt would be written off. Lo and behold! The promise was broken and is now being conveniently forgotten. However, superficial opposition to student debt remains a feature of SNP rhetoric and it is one of the main arguments that the SNP uses for the abolition of tuition fees.
Unfortunately, opposition to increased debt does not seem to apply to Scottish students from the lowest-income families. We might think that the failure to bring more lower-income students to university and the much-trumpeted opposition to debt would mean that the SNP actually did something to reduce debt levels for students from lower-income families. Let us look at the SNP Government’s record.
SNP ministers have told us that the so-called minimum income guarantee is the best student support package in the United Kingdom. The most recent statistics on HE student support in Scotland show that, between 2010-11 and 2011-12, the amount of non-repayable awards, or grants, actually decreased by £24 million, which is a reduction of 19 per cent. At the same time, the amounts authorised in loans—loans that lead to debt—increased by £20.6 million. So much for writing off student debt.
That switch to loans is hitting the poorest students the hardest. Those who are living in households with an income below £25,000 will lose between £890 and £1,640 per year. It should be remembered that more than 40 per cent of full-time students who are supported by the Scottish Government come from households with incomes below £25,000, so they are the ones who are most directly affected. At the same time, students with a family income of £61,000 or more will now qualify for a cheap £4,500 loan. In other words, poorer students are being asked to subsidise better-off students. Debt is being piled on to poorer students, and somehow that is supposed to make it easier for them to go to university.
Since when did debt become part of our income? Those of us who have a mortgage know that that is a debt that has to be repaid. However, according to the SNP and the National Union of Students, for lower-income students, debt is now part of their income. The idea is bizarre and perverse. We should remember that this is from the same Scottish Government that said in 2008:
“We believe that it is wrong for students to be put into debt by the state.”
It is clear that it did not mean—or did not care about—students from lower-income families, whose debts are being increased and whose grants are being cut.
We should listen to Lucy Hunter, who is a former head of higher education in the Scottish Executive. She said:
“The grant reductions now planned will add considerably to the overall debt of students from lower income households without increasing the cash they have to spend.”
In other words, the amount that those students have to spend is being switched from grants to loans, which leads to more debt. Scottish graduates from poorer backgrounds will end up with higher Government debt and less disposable income later in life.
Comparisons are often made with students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Are bursaries and grants being cut for poorer students in those jurisdictions? In England, students whose household income is of up to £25,000 can claim grants of up to £3,354. In Scotland, the same grant could be as low as £500; at most, it would be £1,750. Even the much-derided English system is prepared to give more help to poorer students. In Wales, grants of £5,161 are available to students whose household income is under £18,730. In Northern Ireland, maintenance grants of £3,475 are available to students whose household income is £19,203 or less. It seems that, in Scotland, the rocks will melt with the sun before any significant assistance is given to poorer students.
It is not just younger students who are being hit. As Lucy Hunter demonstrated in her excellent article, Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom in which mature students are given lower grants than young students receive. Apparently, we have a commitment to lifelong learning in this country, but grant support for mature students, who often have family and other financial commitments to meet, is being reduced to a flat rate of £750 for those with incomes of up to £17,000. Poor mature students are being given a grant of £750, which is the worst in the United Kingdom.
I know many teachers and lecturers in colleges and universities who went back to education after having been made redundant or having decided on a career switch. It seems that the Scottish Government is turning its back on such people, who often have a huge amount to contribute by drawing on a wealth of working and life experience. In SNP-led Scotland, mature students will receive lower grants and finish their studies with around 45 per cent more debt than all students from the most well-off backgrounds. Over four years, young Scots from lower-income homes will need to borrow £22,000 to obtain their full state support for living costs. So much for writing off student debt. Lucy Hunter pointed out in her excellent article,
“With much the lowest grants and universal free tuition”,
Scotland is the part of the United Kingdom that is moving
“closest to treating higher education support as a flat-rate benefit, while other jurisdictions choose instead to give more grant to those from lower-income homes ... As a result, the Scottish Government is the only one in the UK which expects graduates from poorer backgrounds to end up with a higher government debt and, therefore, a larger claim on their future earnings” and less disposable income in later life
“than their peers from wealthier homes.”
The SNP quotes the NUS in its amendment—both parrot the “best support package” nonsense. Yes, Scotland stands out from the rest of the UK—we should be quite clear about that—but the reality is that Scotland stands alone in its diminishing use of student grants, in asking poorer students to subsidise the better off and in refusing to take the action needed to help more students from poorer backgrounds succeed at university. The new support package is penalising the poor to help the rich.
It is time to admit that the present system is perverse and unfair; time to move from paying lip service to social justice to making it a reality; time to ditch the present funding system, which hits poorer students the hardest; and time to bring in decent grants now.
That the Parliament notes the introduction of the minimum income guarantee for students; notes that grants for lower-income students are being cut; believes that lower-income students are being financially disadvantaged in Scotland compared to elsewhere in the UK; does not accept that lower-income students should be disadvantaged in order to provide support for those from better-off households, and believes that the cuts to grants for lower-income students should be reversed in order to address inequality in access to higher education in Scotland.
No. I want to make some headway.
The second irrefutable fact is that if you vote against widening access, you will not widen access. Of course, that is precisely what the Labour Party did at stage 1 of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.
I will take Mr Findlay in just a minute. We wait with bated breath to see whether Labour will vote against widening access for the second time. Will Mr Findlay tell us?
The merest sophistry as ever from Mr Findlay. I repeat: if you vote against widening access, you will not widen access. However, that is what Labour did. [Interruption.]
I thank Labour for bringing the debate, because it allows me to celebrate one of the great successes of the SNP’s second term: the implementation of the manifesto commitment to introduce a minimum income for students. We did what we said we would do, and in fact we went further, because we set the minimum income at £7,250. I note Mr Henry’s full-frontal attack on the National Union of Students. However, I will quote again what the NUS rightly said, which was that we have produced the “best support package” available anywhere in the UK.
The Labour Party seems to be hell-bent on telling people what they cannot have and what will be taken away from them. We have had Ed Balls saying this week that the Tory cuts will be sustained. If ever there was a shameful statement, it was that. [Interruption.]
Presiding Officer, can the record note that Mr Findlay is enjoying himself by shouting, as usual?
Now we have the Labour Party’s determination to take away free education in Scotland. This is what the Labour motion is all about, yet again: “Let’s take away free education in Scotland.”
There is no direct line from Ed Balls to Hugh Henry. That is yet another spending commitment made that has not been cleared by the shadow chancellor and which is obviously not in the manifesto. The reality is that all the rhetoric from Labour is about imposing student fees, but it has not got the guts to say so. That is the reality of where we have been for the past year.
Free education is central to my vision of the Scotland that we should have and, indeed, to the vision of Scotland that most people in Scotland share. It is also central to the NUS’s vision of the country that it wants to live in. I listen and talk to the NUS; I do not deride it in the Parliament chamber, as Mr Henry does.
The NUS said, after we had been talking about student support and student finance over a long period, that it wanted to ensure that there was “money in student pockets”. That is what the NUS wanted to see. We worked hard with the NUS, to adjust the amount of money that was available to support bursaries, so that we could make the maximum amount available to students. In that way, we have been able to produce the minimum student income.
Mr Henry continues to mutter and shout. That is Labour’s contribution to debate. All Labour members are prepared to do is mutter and shout.
Let us look at student debt figures, which are crucial. The UK graduates survey in 2012 showed clearly that the average student loan debt for Scottish students at that stage was £6,480, compared with £17,140 in England and £13,650 in Wales—that is without student fees.
No, I want to make progress.
It is now estimated that the English and Welsh figures could climb to £50,000. That is the reality of the debate that we are having. That is what Labour wants. There is to be that massive increase, but it is all cloaked in the language that we heard.
We are trying to widen access in a way that will work, because we know that fees will turn people off. We are trying to legislate for widening access. Statutory widening access agreements will be put in place, and this will be the only place in these islands where there is such a commitment.
We are determined that the agreements will work, and our discussions with Universities Scotland and universities themselves have been very positive. Of course, Labour does not want the agreements to work, because Labour’s absolute approach is that whatever the Scottish Government proposes is to be opposed.
No, sorry. I want to finish my point.
Labour’s way of opposing the agreements is therefore to vote against a bill that will widen access and to bring to the Parliament the mess of a proposal on student finance that we are considering, as though that makes a contribution in some way.
We must ensure that we widen access. We know from every survey that has taken place that what puts students off is the prospect of fees. The motion has nothing to commend it at all, except Labour’s oppositionism. What we need to commend is the commitment to free education that the Parliament has shown. We need to ensure that we continue to deliver free education, because that is the only way—along with the legislation that we have—that we will genuinely widen access.
Let us not have these silly games about the notions that Labour is putting forward. Let us look at the truth. In Scotland we provide the best package of student support that is available anywhere in the UK. That is something of which we should be justifiably proud, and which is supported by students and universities. Only Labour and perhaps other parties are against the expansion of higher education that we have undertaken.
I move amendment S4M-06843.2, to leave out from first “notes” to end and insert:
“believes that access to university should be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay; further believes that neither upfront nor backdoor tuition fees have any place in Scotland; welcomes the removal of tuition fees, saving around 125,000 students up to £27,000 compared with England; further welcomes the introduction of the minimum income guarantee to give the poorest students a minimum income of £7,250 per year in maintenance support from 2013-14 and the increase in the minimum level of student loan to £4,500 a year for every eligible student, and agrees with comments by the National Union of Students Scotland that Scotland has ‘the best support package in the whole of the UK’.”
I welcome the Labour Party’s scheduling of a debate on student support. This is not the first time that the Parliament has addressed the issue and I am sure that it is by no means the last. The issue is regarded with keen interest by students, people in higher education and parents whose youngsters plan to go to university.
Hugh Henry’s motion, which Conservatives are pleased to support, notes the cut in grants for lower-income students. Hugh Henry was quite right to point that out, because the figures are beyond doubt. The amount of money that the Student Awards Agency for Scotland has handed out in non-repayable grants has fallen by 19 per cent, from £127.7 million in 2010-11 to £103.4 million in 2011-12.
The Scottish Government will argue—we have already heard it do so—that it is increasing the level of loan support as an alternative. That is what it has done, but such an approach is directly contrary to what the SNP promised in the past, as Hugh Henry said. Because I have been in the Parliament for a long time—sometimes it feels like a very long time—I can remember the debates that we had before 2007. Of course, the cabinet secretary was not here at the time, so perhaps he is excused, but all his colleagues, day after day, lambasted the then Executive for bringing in loans, rather than grants.
The cabinet secretary’s book is my constant bedtime companion; whenever I have difficulty sleeping, it is the first thing that I turn to. At that time, he had very interesting ideas about bringing market forces into higher education, but I will not embarrass him by repeating them in full this afternoon.
At the root of this issue is a debate about priorities and whether support should be targeted or universal. The SNP’s clear view is that support should be universal, even if that means that those most in need have to suffer as a consequence. We have more sympathy with Labour’s approach that support needs to be targeted.
Of course, as we have discussed before, this issue applies not just to student support but to prescription charges, tuition fees, universal free bus travel for the over-60s—and the list goes on. The important point that goes across all those issues is that a choice has to be made for which a price has to be paid and universal benefit for students comes at the expense of those most in need.
I have some sympathy with the SNP in that the Labour motion does not make clear where the money would come from to reverse the cuts in grants for lower-income students. The assumption is that it would come from the students who are currently benefiting but I think that Labour would be more credible on this issue if it spelled that out.
I am sorry, but I have only five minutes. The member will forgive me if I go on to deal with my amendment.
My amendment brings in the related issue of improving access to higher education, which the cabinet secretary has touched on. I have on many previous occasions in the chamber highlighted Scotland’s poor record compared with England on access to university for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There was a time when people disputed my figures, and I am pleased that no one seems to do so now. The latest statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service confirm that the application rate of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas is substantially higher in England than it is in Scotland and that Scotland fares worst out of the four countries in the UK on those statistics.
I hope that that puts to bed for good the notion that the SNP continually puts around—and which we heard a hint of this afternoon from the cabinet secretary—that the introduction of tuition fees south of the border deters those from less well-off backgrounds from applying to go to university.
All the evidence is to the contrary. In England, applications from those from disadvantaged backgrounds are going up. Why would that be happening in England if the introduction of tuition fees were a deterrent? I say to the cabinet secretary that his claim is nonsense. After all, tuition fees allow generous bursaries to be paid to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, Professor von Prondzynski himself has said that we need to get over the idea that
“just because the higher education in Scotland is free, ... that somehow supports people from poorer backgrounds—it doesn’t.”
He is absolutely right.
We should be concerned about Scotland’s participation rate. Targeted student support is one way of tackling that and we also need to look at improvements in school education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The SNP seems to be pretending that all is well in higher education, but it is not. It is failing too many from less well-off backgrounds.
I am pleased to move amendment S4M-06843.1, to insert at end:
“, and believes that both better student support and improvements in the school education system for those from disadvantaged backgrounds are essential if Scotland is to tackle its relatively poor record of access to higher education from this group”.
I am delighted that Labour has brought forward this topic for debate, because it is good to flush out its position on higher and further education funding and, of course, student support. We know that Labour supports tuition fees, because it introduced them in Scotland and Gordon Brown introduced them elsewhere in the UK. In fact, Labour is a big fan of fees.
I was particularly interested—indeed, intrigued—by the bold assertion in the Labour motion
“That the Parliament ... believes that lower-income students are being financially disadvantaged in Scotland compared to elsewhere in the UK”.
That came as something of a surprise to me, given that Robin Parker, the president of NUS Scotland, called the Scottish Government’s support package “very welcome news indeed” and went on to say:
“Abolishing fees, protecting places and improving student support are the foundations on which we can achieve fair access.”
Perhaps the NUS is wrong and Labour is right on this matter; I know that it is unlikely but, as it could theoretically be possible I decided to check Labour’s claim and see what it is so keen for us to adopt by comparing two students, one in Scotland and the other in England. In carrying out this comparison, I wanted to be fair to Labour and have therefore focused on the very students it mentions in its motion. Both students come from households with incomes of £15,000 and they are doing the same course but at different institutions, one in Scotland and one in England. In 2013-14, the Scottish student will receive £7,250 in a combination of bursaries and loans while the English student will receive less than that—£7,177—again through a combination of loans and bursaries. However, the Scottish student will pay zero—absolutely nothing—in tuition fees, while the English student will have to pay fees.
“When pushing higher fees through the Parliament”
“promised that fees above £6,000 would be the exception rather than rule.”
However, the Office for Fair Access checked that and found that, of the 122 higher education institutions that were included in its report, which covered those that receive Higher Education Funding Council for England income and have full-time undergraduates, every single one charges more than the basic fee of £6,000 per year.
Again, I want to be fair to Labour. I do not want to use the maximum fee of £9,000 in my comparison, because that would be unfair. I cannot use the minimum fee of £6,000, because nobody charges it. So what about the average fee? The 2013-14 fee in England will be £8,507. Again, I want to be fair, because I am sure that Labour, the Tories and indeed the Lib Dems—if they were here—would say, “But what about all the additional support they get? What about the fee waivers, the bursaries, the Office for Fair Access agreements and all of that?” Well, the Office for Fair Access has commented on that. It said:
“Taking bursaries, scholarships and fee waivers into account reduces the average fee to £7,898”.
In other words, the OFA says that, when all university and Government financial support is taken into account, the average fee is around £7,900 per year. Therefore, after all factors such as loans, bursaries, fees and all the other support are included, a financially disadvantaged student in Scotland will accrue in effect a debt of £5,500 from their loan, while an identical student in England will accrue a debt of £11,721 in a single year—more than twice as much as that of the student in Scotland.
If we go down the road that Labour wants us to go down, Scottish students from lower-income households will receive less support and gain debt levels of more than double those that students currently face under the Scottish system. Labour’s position is now clear: vote Labour, get less and pay back more.
I join my Labour colleagues in stating that we want to see not only a well-funded, high-quality education system in Scotland but one that helps people from all backgrounds to succeed and allows people to fulfil their potential, irrespective of their income. If that is to become a reality, the Government needs to do more than just talk about improving equality in access to higher education. That is what our motion is about: taking action to reverse the cut to grants for the lowest-income students
On widening access, I say to the cabinet secretary that the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill will not put money in the poorest students’ pockets. If the cuts remain, they will damage poorer people’s opportunities to go to university. The Government’s minimum income policy looks more like a maximum debt policy. By cutting bursaries for the poorest students by £890, the SNP is placing lower-income students at a serious financial disadvantage.
Instead of encouraging lower-income students to enter and stay in higher education, increasing their student loan debt is likely to have the opposite effect. If SNP members believe that to increase tuition fee debt will put people off seeking to study at university, they must also accept that to increase student loan debt will do the same. Debt is debt.
Speaking of debt, I point out that the SNP Government promised to dump the student debt. Its excuse in its first term was that it did not have a majority. It has a majority now, so it can get on with that if it still wants to pursue the policy.
As Hugh Henry mentioned, the most recent statistics on student support show that the total amount paid in non-repayable awards fell by 19 per cent in 2011-12, while the amount authorised in loans increased by more than £20 million, so there is a clear trend in the Scottish Government away from bursaries and towards loans. That is the reality.
When SNP members such as Stewart Maxwell make comparisons between the support that is available for poorer students in Scotland and what is available for those in the rest of the UK, their rhetoric is yet again at odds with the reality. Stewart Maxwell mentioned combinations of loans and bursaries. A maximum bursary of £1,750 is available here for students whose household income is less than £17,000, whereas in England a maximum grant of £3,354 is available to those whose household income is less than £25,000. Wales and Northern Ireland also offer better support to the poorest students. Put simply, Scotland is not the best place but the worst place for someone who is poor to get student support. Rather than the minister congratulating himself, he should be ashamed.
The household income threshold of £17,000 in Scotland is now so low that, if a student’s parents both work full time on the minimum wage, the student will not qualify for the minimum income guarantee. That is at the same time as the maximum non-income-assessed loan is increasing to £4,500. The Scottish Government needs to prioritise support for lower-income students, as it is clear that we could and should be doing more to ensure that lower-income students are not disadvantaged in order to provide cheap loans to those from the most affluent backgrounds.
I am sure that many members across the chamber will have read with interest the comments that were made by Professor von Prondzynski yesterday as well as the compelling recent comments by Sheila Riddell and Lucy Hunter. We keep hearing from the SNP that everything would be better for students in an independent Scotland, but we know that cutting public expenditure to fund corporation tax cuts for big business is more of a priority for the SNP Government. This is about priorities. Instead of cutting taxes for big business, Labour would prioritise widening access and supporting lower-income students into higher education. It is not too late for the Government to do the same and reverse the cuts to grants for lower-income students.
The increase in funding for student support in the Scottish Government’s budget provides significant increases for Scotland’s poorest students, setting a new minimum income of £7,250 a year for those who are most in need and overall putting an additional £140 million a year into students’ pockets. That was NUS Scotland’s verdict after it had lobbied the Scottish Government to do just that. It is the best student support package across all the nations in the current UK and puts nearly £1,000 extra into the pockets of our poorest students. There are no front-door tuition fees in Scotland and no back-door endowment charges, and overall debt levels are the lowest in the UK.
It seems that Labour is now constantly at odds with the NUS in Scotland, and it appears to be heading towards a confrontation with Scotland’s students and the wider Scottish community on the principle of free education. That is where we are heading if Labour ever wins again—tuition fees will be back. I cannot imagine any students and their families now or in the future being thrilled at that prospect. Maybe Labour members miss their endowment charges, or back-door tuition fees as they really were—in fact, Labour members voted to keep them—but the rest of us do not miss them and they will not be back as long as the SNP remains in power.
We should not be surprised at this coming back to haunt us in the Parliament once again. The attack on student support is a fig leaf behind which to hide what is really happening in the Labour Party in London. Mr Balls holds his hands up and admits defeat, sides up with the Tory cuts agenda, refuses to repeal the bedroom tax and starts attacking winter fuel payments for pensioners. That is the real source of where Labour in Scotland is now coming from. Scottish Labour members are hooked on a leash by their London bosses, no matter the cost to Scotland. The planned journey back to power for Labour in the UK means the consequent abandonment of the principles of collective social solidarity that Labour was once proud to defend, and Scottish students and their families will pay the price if Labour is ever elected again.
It does not need to be like that, and it will not be like that in Scotland under the SNP Government. The commitment to free education is not cheap. It costs us money to deliver it, but that is the point. It costs the Scottish Government and not the families of students in Scotland, because we believe that education is a right for every citizen who can learn and not a privilege for those who can pay their way through the front door of our universities. I believe that the communities of Scotland are with us on that.
Has the member given any thought to the fact that there are perhaps too many degrees on offer and that too many people feel that they have to go to university instead of enrolling on a more suitable course elsewhere?
As always, Margo MacDonald makes a valid point. Looking to the future, we should encourage a wider and more accessible education for all young people in Scotland.
On top of our commitment to having no tuition fees in Scotland, we have put up £10 million to get 2,000 students from our poorer backgrounds into university, 700 of whom have come from our widening access programme, which Labour also opposed.
When I spoke on this subject in February, I told the chamber of my good fortune to have gone to university pretty much for free in the 1970s when an enlightened Labour Government also thought that that was the right thing to do.
I am afraid that you must finish.
Sadly, the Labour Party agenda in the UK would take us back down that road to introducing fees. I hope that Labour’s motion is not supported.
I ask members to stick to their four-minute allocations.
I am, as Mr Glasgow, a friend of students, so I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. On my people’s behalf, I am passionate about widening access to education and support for poorer students in our communities.
I start by welcoming the steps that have been taken by the University of Glasgow to create up to 800 places over the next four years for students from low-income backgrounds. The university has received money from the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council to create 200 extra places a year from 2013 to 2016. The places will be open to students from the 40 per cent most deprived areas. Although welcome, the impact of such schemes to widen access is limited. However, the difficulty is that not only do poorer students face instability, but they cannot sustain themselves with the available financial packages while they are in education.
A lot of attention has been paid to fees, but not enough has been paid to student costs. Therefore, I am glad that the debate will look at support for students entering higher education. Students are supported by grants and bursaries that they do not have to pay back. However, they must pay back loans, as a percentage of their earnings, later on in life. With the planned cuts to grants this autumn, poorer students will have to borrow more, despite their being disadvantaged to begin with.
The new arrangements will increase the amount of cash that students can borrow without means testing. That will be much more useful to students from more affluent backgrounds than it will be to those from poorer backgrounds who start off, as I have said, from a disadvantaged position.
For students from lower-income households, the new arrangements will mean that what they are given with one hand will be taken back with the other, so it is even more difficult for those people, simply because they are poorer. Students who are disadvantaged will continue to be disadvantaged; I do not see how they will benefit. However, students who come from affluent backgrounds will always have an advantage over our disadvantaged students. I have always believed that it is our job to ensure that our student community has a level playing field.
Day in, day out, I see a lot of students who have been disadvantaged not only through lack of resources, but through the choice of subjects. That has become a serious issue for Scotland. I have always believed that we are a nation that is here for our people, that we would deliver for our students and ensure that everybody has opportunities.
When I was at school, my mother went to university. She was able to do that because she had free access. That situation is changing because students are not getting places in colleges and the people who are affected are the people from the poorest parts of our communities. Those students are going to be betrayed again: they will not get the full package of grants because of the proposed cuts.
I support Hugh Henry’s motion.
First, I will put on the record what the minimum income guarantee will mean for Scottish students. It will mean an annual income of £7,250, through a combination of bursaries and loans, for students from families that are on incomes of less than £17,000. All students, regardless of their circumstances, will be eligible for a student loan of £4,500 per year, as requested by NUS Scotland, which wants to see more cash in students’ pockets.
Part-time students whose personal income is less than £25,000 will now receive full support for tuition fees as a proportion of the full-time fee equivalent. Increased support is being provided for part-time students from the lowest-income households, who will now be able to have the full cost of their tuition fees, up to the equivalent rate of fee support for full-time courses, met by the Scottish Government. That brings the arrangements for them into line with those for full-time students. In addition, dental and medical students will receive support for the duration of their courses when, previously, they received less support in their final year.
Robin Parker of NUS Scotland has been quoted a lot. In today’s Scotsman, he said:
“Our research shows that student hardship, and not having enough money to live on, is one of the largest deterrents to starting and staying at college or university.
That’s why it’s so important to see the huge investment being made into financial support from this summer, worth an additional £140m per year in the money students receive in their pockets, with increases for the poorest students worth almost £1,000 a year each.”
It is extremely important that we acknowledge that we are looking after our students.
The widening access agenda has been mentioned. I will address Mr Findlay’s assertion that we had somehow voted against further participation in widening access. In committee, we democratically gave the cabinet secretary the flexibility to identify groups that would be affected by the widening access agenda. The Labour proposition was based on protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, despite the fact that they are already protected in the process. The example that I gave in committee, which I give again, is the Gypsy Traveller community, which does not have a protected characteristic but might well be supported by what we voted for, which means that the cabinet secretary could identify such a group for support in widening access.
The principal of the University of Edinburgh, Sir Timothy O’Shea, said:
“We support the bill’s intentions with regard to widening participation and having greater efficiency in the sector and greater accountability.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 22 January 2013; c 1838.]
Robin Parker said that, rather than having an obsession with tuition fees, Scottish Labour’s obsession should be with promoting fairer access to higher education, which he said that the NUS would be very willing to work on with it.
Where is all this coming from? It is coming from the blue Labour agenda, which is why Labour down south is not proposing to reverse the child benefit cuts and is proposing the introduction of means testing for fuel payments. [Interruption.]
Labour members would lead us to believe that they are looking after poor people, but that is not what is happening in reality. In the London borough of Newham, the long-standing Labour mayor, Robin Wales, has overseen fast-tracking of people who are in employment on to the housing waiting list. What Labour members say here does not reflect what Labour is doing down south. We must remember that the recently appointed Labour peer Lord Maurice Glasman—Baron Glasman—is at the forefront of this agenda. He advocates removing absolute entitlement to welfare in favour of rewards that are based on financial and social contributions. The Labour Party is not protecting the poor, or anyone else, in Scotland.
I, too, welcome the debate, albeit that it is a brief one. I may struggle to take interventions. If so, I apologise.
As Hugh Henry said, part of the SNP narrative has always been that education south of the border is going to hell in a handcart, while students north of the border are emerging into sunlit uplands. That glosses over the rather inconvenient truth about the SNP’s promise to dump the student debt. As Murdo Fraser pointed out, the SNP has succeeded in doing precisely the opposite. The changes to student support also paint an interesting picture in that regard and are at odds with the image that Scottish ministers have sought to project.
The minimum income guarantee is a worthwhile initiative and I think that it will deliver in a number of respects. It is similar to a commitment that the Scottish Liberal Democrats made. However, the way in which the cabinet secretary has chosen to achieve it seems to be regressive and works against some of the objectives of widening access. Lucy Hunter is one of a number of people who have been extensively quoted today. As she has said, the new regime will burden students from poorer homes with the greatest debt.
For under-25s and students from households with incomes under £17,000, the move from non-repayable grants to loans means a grant of £1,750 and a loan of £5,500, whereas under the previous system, grants for students from low-income families were set at £2,640 with a possible additional £1,000 entitlement through the independent student bursary. Lucy Hunter’s calculations suggest that those from the poorest backgrounds now need to borrow £22,000 to obtain their full state support for living costs. She concludes:
“Scotland appears uniquely willing to allow student grants to melt away, at the expense of the least well-off.”
Her findings back up what Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh school of education said at the end of last month.
Let us take a look at the situation south of the border. There, grant support has increased from £3,250 to £3,354 for students from households with incomes under £25,000—not the lower £17,000 threshold that has been set in Scotland. The national scholarship programme provides additional support, and funding has been increased from £50 million to £150 million in 2014-15. It also involves match funding from individual institutions. The threshold for repayment of loans has increased from £15,500 or thereby to more than £21,000 per annum, and loans are paid back over 30 years, whereas in Scotland graduates will end up repaying far sooner, at a threshold of about £16,500, and the debt will last for 35 years.
That is perhaps why the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the new system is
“substantially more progressive than its predecessor”.
The other thing that SNP ministers have been at pains to point out is that there has somehow been a crash in enrolments south of the border. As Murdo Fraser said, the number of Scots applying to universities has increased by 2 per cent, while the number of English students applying has increased by 3 per cent, from UCAS’s latest figures. The number of Scots applying to study at English universities has increased by 2.7 per cent, which is higher than the increase in Scots applying at home, and the application rate for English 18-year-olds, at 35 per cent and increasing, is higher than the application rate in Scotland, which is static at about 32 per cent.
That is perhaps why the chief executive of UCAS says:
“Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are 80 per cent more likely to apply than a decade ago.”
SNP ministers assert that their approach is progressive and that they are working to achieve wider access to further and higher education. The reality is that, in many respects, that is a smokescreen. Cutting grants and increasing loans, setting repayment thresholds that are lower than elsewhere in the UK—
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I do not thank Liam McArthur for taking an extra three or four seconds off me, though.
I take this debate extremely seriously. Higher education is one of the foundations of our future, and the Scottish Government is committed to it. It will help us to create the Scotland that we all want, and to ensure that our young people have the future that we all want them to have.
I take the issue very seriously, but I do not have the same thoughts about the Labour Party and its antics in the chamber. As the cabinet secretary did, though, I thank the Labour Party for bringing the debate to the chamber because it gives us an opportunity to tell everyone exactly what the Scottish Government is doing on higher education.
Hugh Henry said that we are all parroting the same thing. He must also be talking about Robin Parker and the NUS, because they agree with us that the investment that the Scottish Government is making has to happen and that the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill has to go through.
Let us look at what Labour members are doing. They say that they believe in widening access—Neil Findlay is nodding his head vigorously. They say that, but when they get an opportunity to vote on it in committee, they vote against it. They come into the chamber and do a bit of showbiz in front of the media, but they do nothing with regard to the people who count—the students.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
For me, the most important things are the students and the offer that we have. It was mentioned earlier that in an article in The Scotsman, NUS president Robin Parker said:
“Our research shows that student hardship, and not having enough money to live on, is one of the largest deterrents to starting and staying at college”.
That is why it is so important to note the huge investment that is being made in financial support—£140 million per year. That shows the commitment of this Government and of Scotland—the NUS appreciates that as well. That is the difference between the Scottish Government and the Labour Party.
I mean this kindly and I want to say it gently, because I believe in consensual politics and in us all working together and so on, but I ask the Labour Party, please, to not let the Labour Party become a sideshow in a carnival. Work with us and engage in the future and try to build the Scotland that we want. Move away from the Saturday night variety performance and do something for Scotland’s future. [Interruption.]
The cabinet secretary got rather excited earlier about the important issue of whether the introduction of tuition fees in England has deterred people from less well-off backgrounds. Let us bottom out that important point, because the cabinet secretary continually makes a case—without evidence to back him up—that tuition fees have deterred people from the least well-off families.
I checked the latest figures. The UCAS publication came out in January this year—I am sure that the cabinet secretary has seen it—and it says quite clearly that the application rate of 18-year-olds in England from the most disadvantaged areas has increased from 10.7 per cent in 2004 to 19.5 per cent in 2013. That is a virtual doubling in a period when tuition fees and top-up fees were introduced. There is not much evidence there of people from less well-off backgrounds being deterred.
I quoted earlier Professor von Prondzynski, and from a sedentary position, the cabinet secretary suggested that I was somehow misquoting the professor. I took the opportunity to dig out my copy of the latest Holyrood magazine, which is hot off the press. I should say that there is a very nice photograph of me on page 20. I will quote directly from Professor von Prondzynski’s interview on page 8. He says:
“we need to get over this idea that just because the higher education in Scotland is free, that that somehow supports people from poorer backgrounds—it doesn’t.”
The professor goes on to say:
“I’m not going to argue the case against free higher education, but you have to be aware of the fact that the main beneficiaries of that are the middle classes, not the disadvantaged.”
If the cabinet secretary believes that I have misquoted Professor von Prondzynski, he should get to his feet and say that.
The point that I was going to make earlier, before Murdo Fraser ran out of time, is precisely the point that I will make now. Professor von Prondzynski also argues—very convincingly, I think, and I have heard him argue it several times—that the reality is that we need to do more than simply have free education. That means including things such as compulsory progress towards widening access—which he supports—in the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. The Tories voted against that. It would be—
The cabinet secretary has had long enough. Given that he made that intervention, I will again quote Professor von Prondzynski, who was equally scathing about the new widening access targets that have been introduced by Mr Russell. He said:
“I’m afraid that this will be seen as a substitute for doing the things that actually need to be done.”
Far from being an ally of the cabinet secretary, the professor takes a completely different view.
“Free undergraduate tuition ... has not markedly altered the pattern of recruitment to Scottish universities.”
She went on to say that
“universal free tuition is of greatest benefit to those who are already socially advantaged.”
Let us be absolutely clear about where we are on this debate. The introduction of tuition fees south of the border has not deterred people from less well-off backgrounds from accessing higher education. The cabinet secretary would do himself more favours if he were to accept that basic point.
I took the trouble to check the SNP’s 2007 manifesto. In it, the SNP states that it
“will ... replace the expensive and discredited Student Loans system with means-tested student grants”, and goes on to say:
“We will remove the burden of debt repayments owed” to the Student Loans Company
“by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates.”
The SNP has done neither of those things, and its members have the temerity to condemn those in other parties—and the parties in Government south of the border—for the approach that they have taken to higher education, which is delivering better access rates for people from deprived backgrounds. We should be proud of that record, but not of the record of the Scottish Government.
Politics always eventually comes down to the argument that some things are simple common sense.
Simple common sense says that transferring the burden of funding of higher education from the state to the student will massively increase the student’s debt and change the way in which society views education. Education will be seen as a private good and not as a societal benefit.
What we have seen—[Interruption.]
Presiding Officer, I would like to be able to speak without constant interruptions from members on the Labour side of the chamber. I do not know whether that is possible.
Such a view of education is a major problem in a society.
If the Labour Party has now bought into that view of education—as it proposed to do by setting up the Browne review that accelerated the process south of the border—its members should say so quite clearly. Any system that decides to transfer the interests of the state and society to the individual student monetises higher education, which is inimical not just to the traditions of Scottish higher education but to the important things that underpin its success.
Many people—including me—fear that, if that approach is taken, we will see a massive erosion of the extraordinarily high standing and status of Scottish higher education. For those who are prepared to take it, such an approach is playing with fire. If they are prepared to bring in those proposals—which is what they are talking about, despite all their fine words—they run the very substantial risk of undermining the whole of Scottish higher education.
I will address one or two key points that members have raised. Hanzala Malik made an interesting point, and I agree with his support for the University of Glasgow’s access to the professions scheme. The scheme is important, and its success has led to a large increase in those from the most deprived communities entering the professions. That is precisely the type of initiative that is encouraged and underpinned by the agreements on widening access. Unfortunately for Mr Malik, however, his party voted against that system in the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. If he is in favour of that scheme, as I am—it is a wonderful scheme—he should attempt to persuade front-bench Labour members to support rather than reject it in the bill.
The simple question that must be asked is how we meet the needs of students and widening access. One does not bring in tuition fees that cost thousands of pounds—
I would like to make some progress.
One does not bring in tuition fees that cost thousands of pounds while arguing, as Labour has done, for a £900 bursary increase. That is either economic illiteracy or gross hypocrisy, and I leave it to members to decide which it is, because that is the thesis that Labour has presented today.
If we look at what happened when Labour was previously in power in Scotland, we see the reality. Student debt rose at that time—indeed, it rose by £26 million—because of the imposition of the graduate endowment. I suppose that we should say, “By their works shall ye know them.” In reality, Labour’s time in office resulted in an increase in student debt, including debt for the poorest.
Margo MacDonald made an important point, which I will address—I am sorry that she is not in the chamber. She wondered whether there were too many university courses. We should remember that 25 per cent of higher education is delivered through further education, so the proposals that we heard from Labour today—which would damage and destroy higher education—would also affect further education.
All the evidence shows that having fewer courses deters those who are least likely to go to university. Reducing the number of courses and creating these barriers would not affect most students, but it would affect those who have the most difficulty.
Many young constituents who come to me cannot get a place in college. In fact, I have a letter from a college that says that my constituent is in the 108th position for being considered for a place. If my constituents cannot get a place in a college, there is no way that they will get a place in a university. How can the cabinet secretary help me with that?
This is the only Government in these islands that provides the opportunities for all guarantee, which will be available to the member’s constituent if he is 16 to 19. If the member writes to me—he has not done so yet—or to Angela Constance, we will of course intervene to help in the matter. For young people above 16 to 19, we would like to see that guarantee expanded. Indeed, the European Commission has recommended that there should be an expansion of such schemes, but that is being prevented by Westminster.
I want to see guaranteed places, but it is absolutely clear that the opportunities in many colleges are expanding as a result of regionalisation. The more that we see that, the more that I am convinced that regionalisation will answer those questions for the member’s constituents.
I want to finish on a point that Mr McArthur raised. He seemed quite incapable of recognising the following very simple equation. Debt is rising, undoubtedly, and will be higher for students, but it will be massively higher south of the border under the system that his Government has actively supported. Debt there will be massively higher because of the cost of tuition fees. If debt is the great disincentive, he and the Tories, who are tied together, along with Labour are actively supporting a system in which debt will be absolutely higher—
By their works shall ye know them. If debt discourages in that way, the system south of the border is a disaster. Please do not support any party that will destroy Scottish higher education, because that is what will happen.
Meanwhile, let us get back to the terms of the motion for today’s important debate, which is on support for low-income students.
For young people leaving school or leaving home for the first time who are filled with the exciting prospect of a new academic life and of new life challenges, and for adults who are returning to or moving on in higher education, the issue of how they finance and sustain themselves through their studies is often at the forefront of their thoughts. Student finance and the pressures of increased day-to-day living costs mean that it is now normal and no longer the exception for students to take on part-time—and sometimes full-time—jobs to make ends meet.
On the face of it, the Scottish Government’s announcement of a student minimum income guarantee, which was trumpeted as the “best student support package” in the UK, appears to be very good news. Of course, in this area of policy, as in so many areas of Scottish Government policy, smoke and mirrors and mythology and spin cloud reality. Once again, the Scottish Government appears to be reinventing the English language. Just as we have the non-profit distributing of financing, whose only snag is that it distributes profit, we now have the minimum income guarantee for students who want to enter higher education.
Now, I do not know whether the cabinet secretary has any debts, but I am afraid that I have. My mortgage on my house and my loan on my car are just that—they are loans—so I do not classify them as income. Why would a young person’s student loan be classified as income? In no other walk of life or area of finance would an increased loan be classified as increased income. Indeed, the dictionary defines the word “loan” as
“something lent or furnished on the condition of being returned” and the word “income” as
“the monetary payment received for goods or services”.
Perhaps the cabinet secretary can advise us which of those definitions he believes best describes his proposal, but I do not see him rising to do so.
What of the increased loan guarantee? In essence, the amount of loan available is increasing as non-repayable bursaries are decreasing. For students from households that earn less than £25,000, the grant that is lost will be between £890 and £1,640. As Neil Bibby, Hugh Henry and Murdo Fraser said, poorer students are having their bursaries reduced and loans increased—under the guise of what we might call the mythical income guarantee—while students from wealthier backgrounds will see their access to loans increased further.
Those significant cuts will affect the neediest students. For a student from a family in which two parents earn the national minimum wage of £6.19 per hour, the total family income is just over £21,000. That student’s annual bursary is only £1,000 per year, which means that £1,945 more of borrowing will produce only £427 of additional spending power, with the rest needed to make up for the lost grant. For a family income of £18,000, £1,760 of increased borrowing will produce only an extra £120 over and above the previous situation. Of course, with student accommodation in halls of residence in this city at about £100 a week, it is easy to see the pressure on students trying to pay for rent, food, books, computers and bus fares—although, of course, that is not an expense that students will ever share with the cabinet secretary. Far from being a great deal, that to me seems like another Government con. My understanding is that the original plan was for a taper from a maximum grant of £7,000 for those on the lowest income to a maximum loan of £7,000 for people at the other end of the scale.
Hugh Henry quoted an article by Lucy Hunter, the former head of student support at the Scottish Executive, in The Scotsman today. She highlights that low-income Welsh students can access more than £5,000 in bursaries and will at the same time leave with less borrowing than Scottish students who are in the same position. Although the cabinet secretary likes to point to the great Satan in terms of fees and debts in England, the reality is that the difference in cost for low-income English and Scottish students is very small.
Last week, Sheila Riddell from the centre for educational sociology wrote a well-informed article on these important issues. In setting out her critique of Government policies, she said that inequality in education is still rife in Scotland. We agree with her. Far too many children and young people from working-class backgrounds and from the villages, towns, cities and regions that we all represent are not realising their potential or being given the opportunity. That is not because they are less able, willing or ambitious than others; it is because they are not gaining access to universities while others are. For example, in Scotland, only 6 per cent of the school population attends independent schools, yet 34 per cent of students at the University of St Andrews come from that sector and the figure is 20 per cent at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Aberdeen. Clearly, there are many reasons for that, but I cannot for the life of me see how reducing bursaries for poor students helps to redress that inherent inequality in our education system.
Mr Russell, along with Clare Adamson and George Adam, claimed that Labour opposes everything that the Government does. However, I ask the cabinet secretary how many amendments he accepted from the Labour Party during the deliberations on the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. Among the 200 or so amendments that were lodged—about 150 or so by the cabinet secretary—how many did he accept from the Labour Party? None, yet he asks us to contribute.
If we are serious about tackling deep-seated educational inequalities, we need to work closely with our communities, schools, colleges and universities to ensure that they do everything possible to encourage and help people from all backgrounds who have the ability and willingness to go to universities and, crucially, to provide them with the support that they need when they are there to complete their course.
I am afraid that Government spin dresses up debt as income and gives the impression that students are whooping in celebration at the prospect of the mythical minimum student income guarantee. As always, the reality is somewhat different. So, although the rocks perhaps have not yet melted with the sun, it is clear that bursaries are melting day on day.