One of this Government’s proudest achievements is the restoration of free higher education. In addition to free tuition, our minimum income guarantee provides students from the poorest households with £7,500 of living-costs support every year. That support has helped to ensure that record numbers of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas are being accepted to university.
However, we recognise and I believe strongly that we must do much more. That is why I announced in the programme for Government that we will form a commission on widening access to advise on the clear milestones that we must meet to ensure that every child has the same chance of going to university, and what practical measures we need to take to ensure that we achieve that ambition.
The fact of the matter is that this Government in recent years has systematically cut maintenance grants for the poorest university students. In fact, such students in Scotland now receive a maximum of £1,750. Students in their position in England and Northern Ireland receive twice that, and in Wales they receive three times that level of grant support. Indeed, apart from Iceland, where there are no maintenance grants—
Of course, the students in England to whom Iain Gray refers pay tuition fees. Students in Scotland do not pay tuition fees. For students who are living at home, our minimum income guarantee of £7,500 a year for students from the poorest backgrounds is the highest in the UK.
I agree that we need to do more. I hope that Iain Gray and I can perhaps accept that we agree on this. We have to do more to support students from the most disadvantaged parts of our country to access university if that is what they want to do. That is why I have already announced the intention to set up the widening access commission.
However, I think that people should be cautious about believing a word that Labour says when it comes to student support. After all, it was Labour that said in the 1997 election that it would not introduce tuition fees, but did introduce tuition fees after the election. It was Labour that said in the 2001 election that it would not introduce top-up tuition fees, but then after the election did introduce top-up tuition fees.
I stand by this Government’s record on student support. We will continue to take action to improve it. I do not think that people will believe a word that Labour says when it comes to students.
I know that Labour does not like hearing this, but it fought the 1997 election on a “No fees” promise: it broke that promise. It fought the 2001 election on a “No top up fees” promise: it broke that promise. I heard somebody shout, “What about in Scotland?” When Labour was in office in the Scottish Government it moved tuition fees from the front door to the back door, but it still imposed tuition fees. You cannot trust Labour on student support. You can trust the Scottish National Party, because we abolished tuition fees.
That is a difficult and complex problem and it is an important challenge. I want the widening access commission to look not just at how we support and encourage more students from the poorest backgrounds to access university, but at how we support them to carry on through their university courses, complete those courses and graduate. As the widening access commission is set up and developed, I will be very keen to share our thinking on that with members from across the chamber.
I am absolutely determined that we will do everything that we can to ensure that every young person in Scotland has an equal chance of going to university and completing that university education. I hope that all of us across the chamber, regardless of our party, will come together to support that.
In the recent budget negotiations, Scottish Liberal Democrats urged the Deputy First Minister to increase the earnings threshold for repaying student loans from just under £17,000 to £21,000, which is the threshold in the rest of the United Kingdom. That could save young graduates £268 a year and the Government could do it immediately, with no impact on its budget. The First Minister says that she wants to do more, so will she explain why her deputy rejected that move?
We will continue to consider those issues. Although the different threshold that Liam McArthur referred to is in place, when students here pay back their loans they pay them back at a lower rate of interest to compensate for that. Nevertheless, Liam McArthur has raised a legitimate issue that he has raised before, and it is one that the Government will continue to consider.