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Parliamentary debate 5 June 2013: brief overview

June 13, 2013

On 5 June, the Scottish Parliament debated an opposition motion drawing attention to reductions in student grants and calling for these to be reversed. Speakers supporting the motion referred specifically also to the higher levels of debt facing students from lower-income backgrounds compared to those from higher incomes, to the situation of mature students, made comparisons with the rest of the UK (discussed in a separate post looking at the use of evidence in the debate) and noted the reversal of earlier SNP policy to reduce student debt. They referred to the recent report by Prof Sheila Riddell, the comments by Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski at the close of the article linked here, as well as the analysis posted on this site.

Speakers defending the government position rested on the established lines relating to free tuition, increased spending power, UK comparisons and NUS support for the new arrangements.  The increase in the minimum loan for those at higher incomes was also cited, as was increased grant for part-time fees and changes to arrangements for final year dental and medical students.  No speakers defending the government position acknowledged that grant will be reducing in Scotland or referred to increases in student debt (with one exception, discussed in the separate post). Comparisons with the rest of the UK were confined to England (excepting one reference to Wales, also discussed in the separate post).

The trend in Scotland for tuition fees to be prioritised for attention over grants was well-evidenced, with several speakers using the opportunity to argue, without directly referring to grants,  that the motion masked an intention by the Labour Party to introduce tuition fees, which were always discussed as meaning fees at English levels. The strong link made by defenders of the new arrangements (including the Cabinet Secretary) between the terms of the motion and introducing fees suggested an acceptance that grants and tuition fees are in direct competition for resources, with no contributor from the government benches pressing the opposition more generally on where any  resources for implementing their motion would be found.  Only the Conservatives, generally supporting the motion, noted in more general terms that Labour was not clear where the resources for increasing grant would come from.

In particular, the Cabinet Secretary argued that introducing fees [for the 40-45% of students in higher education currently funded for full fees by the Scottish Government] would mean “a massive erosion of the extraordinarily high standing and status of Scottish higher education …. [would] run the very substantial risk of undermining the whole of Scottish higher education… [and] will destroy Scottish higher education.”  The arguments here included an assumption that fee charging at any level always removes a perception of education as a societal benefit rather than a private good,  would be contrary to the norms of Scottish higher education and that fees must always be levied at a rate which transfers most or all of the cost to the student (as in England), rather than representing  a more modest contribution (as in Wales or Northern Ireland).

There was criticism of the Labour Party for its position on the Post-16 Bill, and to which Labour responded, as well as reference by government supporters to the position being taken by the Labour Party at Westminster on benefits and, in one case,  its housing policy in the London Borough of Newham. There was also some discussion about the availability of higher education places, including in further education colleges, and widening access initiatives at Glasgow University. No speakers from either side referred to the specific financial barriers faced by Scottish students wishing to study outside Scotland.

The Opposition motion was supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives (45 votes cast) and an amendment replacing the reference to grants with the customary lines defending the new package was supported by  the SNP, the Green Party, plus 3 independents (Finnie, Urquhart and Walker) (65 votes cast).  The government amendment was therefore carried.

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