This year the Scottish Government has increased the level of bursary available to our poorest students by £125. In 2016, we will increase the household income threshold for eligibility for the maximum bursary of £1,875 from £17,000 to £19,000.
In tough economic times, the Scottish Government is working hard to put as much money as possible into students’ pockets, something that the National Union of Students asked us to do when the new student support package was launched in 2013-14. That is in stark contrast, of course, with the position in England, where new students starting a higher education course in 2016-17 will receive no bursary at all.
Our approach to higher education means that average student loan debt in Scotland is the lowest in the United Kingdom. It contributes to young people from the most deprived areas in Scotland now being more likely to participate in HE by the age of 30 than they were in 2006-07.
Young people from deprived backgrounds in Scotland who get to university are facing cuts to grants and bursaries. Now, 70 per cent of Scottish students who emerge debt free come from better-off backgrounds. Will the Scottish Government restore grants and bursaries to help poorer students succeed in higher education?
It is of course this Government that has maintained free tuition. We have retained bursaries, unlike south of the border. We have also retained the education maintenance allowance. I would hope—referring to my original answer—that even in these tough financial times we will always seek opportunities to put more money into students’ pockets. We know that student debt is a real issue for young people leaving university, starting their career, buying their home or starting their family.
I am pleased to say that our commitment to free tuition must have contributed to Scotland having the lowest average student loan debt. We have the lowest average student loan debt in the UK, the average being £9,500, compared with over £21,000 in England. I am confident that we are giving our young people a far better start to their working lives.
The cabinet secretary is aware that the Conservatives have decided to remove bursaries from the poorest students in England and from student nurses, while also removing the disabled students allowance. Can she once again give us an assurance that the Scottish Government will maintain those vital supports for students in Scotland?
We will not be scrapping bursaries; we will not be scrapping DSA support. We have quite a distinct approach to higher education and student support in Scotland. We have succeeded in putting more money into the pockets of students despite the financial pressures that we are under and we will continue to look for further opportunities.