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Scottish Labour and NUS Scotland set their priorities

March 3, 2015

The Scottish Labour Party today repeated its commitment to free tuition, with Jim Murphy either appearing to sign up to the misleading rhetoric of “ability to pay” (if not using those exact words) or else being suicidally (surely?) machiavellian in leaving the door open to a system where fees can be deferred and repaid in proportion to earnings, as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland:

I want young Scots to be able to train to be doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, scientists and much more no matter their background or how much money their parents have.

NUS Scotland has given its approval:

Scottish Labour should be congratulated for standing up against fees. Free education was the right choice to make when the Scottish Government abolished all fees in 2008, the right choice in the 2011 election when over 85% of MSPs committed to rule out fees, and the right choice now as we look ahead to the 2016 elections.

The frustration in recent years has been that the debate on tuition fees has dominated to the exclusion of almost anything else on education. Now the debate is settled we need to shift the focus to other equally important issues such as tackling student poverty, improving fair access to education, and properly funding our college students.

Meet Neil.

Case Study A

Neil leaves care at 18 and is one of the few such young people to go to university.  He pays no fees.  Like other very low income young students he receives only a £1,750 grant.  He has heard about the minimum income guarantee.  He finds that to obtain it he must borrow the remaining £5,750 every year from the Student Loan Company.  Like 70% of low-income young students, he does this – it’s the only realistic option, he needs to pay his rent and bills and even working part-time it’s a struggle.  He leaves university with a debt of around £24,000 (including interest).  He will see this money disappear from his pay slip over the coming decades, when he could really do with it to save for a house or a pension or just get by.  There’s no-one out there he can reliably turn to when he gets stuck.  Every last penny he earns is needed. He gets a job paying £25,000 a year,  giving him about £1,700 a month net take home pay (with no pension): about £60 of that goes in loan repayments. In theory he could be doing this for the next 35 years, though if his earnings  rise faster than the debt accumulates interest, he will clear it faster.

Case Study B

Lauren went to a pretty indifferent school and things weren’t great at home. She didn’t the grades to go to uni and didn’t think at the time it was for her.  But life moves on, she gets some encouragement, does some part-time courses at college and moves on to a full-time HND at 24.  From there she goes to university, but, like many HN students, doesn’t get “full standing”, so she’ll be in full-time HE for 2 years (HN) and then another 3 (Year 2 of the degree onwards) – 5 in total.  She is classified as an “Independent” student and gets £750 in grant.  For various reasons, there’s no way she could live with her parents, so she borrows £6,750 to get the minimum income guarantee, like over 80% of students of mature students.  She’ll leave university  a bit over £35,000 in debt, including interest. She’s not quite as stuck as Neil for family help, but it’s pretty limited.  Mostly she will have  to rely on her own earnings: like Neil, she’s going to pay a large chunk of those back to the state.

Case Study C

Gavin’s parents jointly run a small local business.  They consistently earn too much for him to get a grant, but income’s a bit unpredictable and money often feels tight – he has a younger sister as well.  His parents wanted him to stay at home, but nowhere locally does the course he wanted – he lives somewhere there’s not much choice of uni, even if you have a car.  Pretty much none if you don’t.  He gets no grant and claims the full £4,750 in loan.  His parents help but he doesn’t like to ask for too much, so their contribution doesn’t quite get him to the minimum income guarantee, though he can live at home sometimes and work locally, and in an emergency they will step in.  He works in term time too.  He worries a lot about money.  His final debt will be a bit under £20,000 and he will notice the hit on his income.  But at least his parents will manage to go on helping him out pretty regularly even after he leaves university.

Case Study D

Eilidh gets on with her parents, who are both well into their professional careers, one working full-time and the other part-time.  They are happy for her to live at home for the first couple of years when she gets a place at a local university.  They do not charge her rent or ask her to contribute to food or other bills.  She gets an allowance from her parents for out of pocket costs, which she tops up with a part time job. When she moves out in her third year, her parents pay her rent and other bills as well. She pays no fees. She leaves university with no debt, though a couple of her friends in a similar situation did take out some loan and are saving it for later.  Her parents will later help her out substantially from time to time, and are happy for her to come back and live at home when she needs to and eventually she is likely to inherit enough to make a difference.

Of course not many students are in as extreme  a situation as Neil, though ones like Lauren are more common. Many are not as lucky as Eilidh, though quite a few are.  NUS Scotland tends to draw most attention to cases like Gavin’s (Neil and Lauren too, but only the issues they face while at university, not what’s stacking up for them in the future).

The message from the Scottish Government, NUS Scotland and now Scottish Labour is that the single most important thing right now to be clear about is that nothing can get worse for Eilidh.  Gavin, Neil and Lauren get a few nods in their direction on the issue of hardship – though it’s not clear whether all these people think they need more debt or have a plan to find them more cash and, if so, from where they plan to find it.

Strip away the rhetoric and it’s pretty simple. Every time free tuition gets a commitment which is not accompanied by an equally clear and specific one to substantially improving investment in student grants, the speaker is saying they are not nearly as concerned that Neil and Lauren are going to be paying heavily in future for their participation in higher education than they are that Eilidh might ever be asked to find anything at all out of her future earnings.

That’s what we’ve already heard from the Scottish Government and it’s what we heard again from NUS Scotland and Scottish Labour today.

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