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The Big, Big Debate: it’s all about tuition fees, again

September 11, 2014

One of the first questions at this evening’s Big, Big Debate with young people in Glasgow broadcast on the BBC was about tuition fees.

Much of the subsequent discussion turned on general public finances.  However, Patrick Harvie MSP made a strong statement on fees, pinning his political credibility on never voting for tuition fees in the future.  He expressed his support for free tuition and his dismay at the prospect that students could face “£20,000, £30,000 or £40,000” in debt in order to do a degree. He described that as “a scandal”.

Ruth Davidson MSP argued that reductions in college places was a consequence of maintaining free tuition.  However, as ever, grants were absent from the discussion. [Update:  the BBC have released the results of a questionnaire filled in beforehand, in which tuition fees were identified by the audience as the most important issue  for 16 and 17 year olds.   97% mentioned these.  However, this looks very possibly to have been from a list provided to them, so young people may have been pushed towards tuition fees as the only vehicle for expressing concern about student funding more generally. In the absence of knowing if student debt or grants was on the list, we cannot be sure.]

Yet with Scotland now offering much the lowest level of student grant in the UK,  those young people at the SSE Hydro this evening who come from families in the bottom third or so of the income distribution are now expected by the Scottish government to incur well over £20,000 in student loan debt, in order to do a degree.  This is more than is expected of those further up the income scale, many of whom will in practice be able to leave university with little or no debt at all.

As debt goes, student loans with their subsidised interest, earnings-related repayments and 35 year  write-off (in Scotland – it is lower in the other nations) are  pretty much as good as it gets.  But anyone defending the current system needs to realise that a country cannot issue over £400 million in student loans each year without many of its students borrowing large amounts and to acknowledge that we have decided in Scotland, as in no other part of the UK,  that this borrowing should fall disproportionately on those who start out from the poorest homes.

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