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The continuing commitment to free tuition

September 4, 2014

Further evidence that free tuition continues to dominate any discussion of student funding in Scotland comes from the report of a BBC-organised panel debate today.

The broadcast is not yet available, but the BBC reports that

Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will never support bringing in tuition fees for Scottish university students.

The SNP politician said her party would “always protect free education because it is one of the most important things any government can ever protect”.

As ever, fees are the issue and there does not appear to have been any parallel commitment to restoring grants at low incomes, on the lines of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech of 2006 (emphasis added):

Our higher education system, today, is predicated on the accumulation of debt. … In 1999, average student loan debt was £2,500. Bad enough you might think. But, today, the average debt owed to the government is more than £11,000 and rising. Why is that a problem? Firstly, because it impedes access to education. For many people in Scotland – particularly those from low income backgrounds – the very idea of incurring debts of that magnitude is a reason not to go to university. …a system that prices anyone out of education in that way is simply not acceptable.  …  you don’t have to stop and think for very long to realise that a graduate with £11,000 or more of debt will find it much harder than one without to buy a home, start a business or save for their retirement.  The fact that a young person’s freedom of choice can be restricted by debts owed to the government for their education is anathema to our belief in free education. … …Firstly, we will get rid of the graduate endowment …An SNP government will abolish tuition fees. Secondly, we will introduce grants to replace loans. The support that government gives to students to help them with their living costs should not be repayable in the same way as a credit card debt or bank loan.…. [Thirdly] An SNP government will write off the accumulated debt still owing to the Student Loans Company by Scottish domiciled students.”

Since 2006, as detailed elsewhere, grants have been considerably reduced from the levels inherited by the SNP administration in 2007 (see here), while total student loan debt in Scotland is set roughly to have trebled over the period since 2008-09 (see figure 1: here).  Expected debt levels for poorer students graduating from university are now more than double the £11,000 quoted above.

So this evening’s debate was a missed chance, because  the point that someone with a large student debt will find life financially harder than someone with little or no debt remains a good one: yet the Scottish system uniquely now expects those from the lowest income homes to leave university with the highest debts.





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