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The Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee – more interested in students in England than in Scotland?

February 9, 2015

Is Stewart Maxwell MSP, Convenor of the Education and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament,  more interested in the welfare of students in England than in Scotland?  The question seems fair, in the light of his reaction to the suggestion that the repayment threshold for student loans in Scotland should be raised.

The proposal has been made most recently by the Liberal Democrats, but also featured in the NUS Scotland submission on the Scottish budget.  At the moment, the state collects 9% of all earnings over £16,910 from Scottish graduates: in England and Wales, it’s 9% of everything over £21,000.  Northern Ireland is like Scotland for this.

Raising the threshold to the same level as applies in England and Wales would tackle some pressure off lower earning graduates, and mean that the lowest earners would end up paying back less debt overall.  As Chowdry, Barr and others have shown, increasing the repayment threshold for loans is a  progressive policy.    And Scotland, as the only part of the UK which visits more student loan on low-income students than ones from better-off homes, could badly do with one of those in this area.

As Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee, it might have been hoped that Mr Maxwell would take a serious interest in all this.  Disappointingly however his comments – at least as quoted in The Herald – are confined to these:

For Willie Rennie to start courting the votes of students after the way his party spectacularly betrayed them over tuition fees takes something of a brass neck and will fall on deaf ears as students – like the rest of Scotland – continue to reject his party.

The Lib Dems are responsible for students south of the border being up to £9,000 per year worse off – and despite Willie Rennie’s shameless claims, their betrayal of students will continue to haunt them through the general election campaign and beyond.

Scotland’s students won’t forget the way the Lib Dems ditched any pretence of principle in order to jump into bed with the Tories – and May’s election is the perfect opportunity to hold them to account on their history of broken promises.

And that’s it.

He is arguably on tricky ground on the question of what he terms “broken promises”, given that in  2007 the SNP campaigned to “Dump the Debt” by replacing loan with grant, but has subsequently allowed the exact opposite to happen.  But even leaving that to one side, as in fairness most people here seem happy to do, is it too much to expect that the convenor of the relevant parliamentary committee in Scotland might at least show as much interest in the detailed operation of the system that actually affects Scottish students as he does in what’s done elsewhere?  As students in Scotland  – particularly poorer ones – have drifted into ever-increasing levels of debt to the state,  the Education Committee of our Parliament has paid no real attention.

As the Liberal Democrats and the NUS have both rightly noticed,  there is scope to offer low earning graduates some relief from this situation, even within the budget constraints faced at the moment by the Scottish Government. Mr Maxwell has an especially privileged platform in this debate.  He could be calling for evidence from the Scottish Government and from experts such as Chowdry.  He could be asking his committee to examine an analysis by SPICe which shows that, due to Scotland’s  lower threshold and longer write-off period,  the lowest earning Scottish students will end up paying back more in practice  than their English counterparts, even if they have half the debt on paper. Sadly, however, Mr Maxwell seems to have pointed his platform, and attention,  firmly to the south – and  those low-income students, and low earning ex-students,  who actually fall within his remit  can only wait and see if their situation will ever catch his eye.


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