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Student grants make it to FMQs – and the FM changes the subject

March 16, 2015

Student support was the subject of a substantial exchange at FMQ last week.  The whole debate is pasted in below and is worth reading, as  it illustrates the difficulty the Scottish Government is having in finding good lines to defend its low grant (and low loan repayment threshold) system.

Noticeable here was:

  • invited to give an undertaking to reverse grant cuts, the FM found other things to talk about.
  • the obligatory references to fees in England were not accompanied, as in the past, with claims of applications and acceptances there having been detrimentally affected – that may reflect that these lines are becoming less easy to run, with heavy recent coverage in the UK media  of  the upward trends in England,  in response to Labour’s proposal there to reduce the fee cap.
  • “best in the UK” has been replaced with the much more carefully qualified “For students who are living at home [emphasis added], our minimum income guarantee of £7,500 a year for students from the poorest backgrounds is the highest in the UK.”  The Scottish government is at last acknowledging that higher maximum living cost support for the majority who live away from home can be found elsewhere (specifically, Wales).  A government backbencher did however raise – spontaneously or prompted – the NUS “best in UK” quote from 2012: it may be that this is not regarded as safe to use as an official line and can now only be played in from the side.
  • the emphasis on policy reversal by other parties at Westminster  remains important: references to the Scottish Government’s own reversal of position on student grant and debt is side-stepped.  Asked about “Dump the Debt“, which formed a major element of the SNP’s campaign in 2006-07, the response was that  “You can trust the Scottish National Party, because we abolished tuition fees,”  implying  that trust matters (a lot) for fees, but not for grants.
  • the Scottish government  position on the loan repayment threshold continues to puzzle.  Invited to increase the threshold, the FM replied  ” We will continue to consider those issues. Although the different threshold that Liam McArthur referred to is in place, when students here pay back their loans they pay them back at a lower rate of interest to compensate for that. Nevertheless, Liam McArthur has raised a legitimate issue that he has raised before, and it is one that the Government will continue to consider.”  For reasons well-explained by others, lower interest only compensates for a lower repayment threshold for those students who pay off their whole debt.  It makes no difference to the size of monthly deductions. The low repayment threshold by contrast causes an immediate additional pressure at low incomes and this continues to be something which at first sight the Scottish government could afford to fix within its current budgets.

The FM’s opening statement – presumably regarded as the key defensive line on living costs – was that “In addition to free tuition, our minimum income guarantee provides students from the poorest households with £7,500 of living-costs support every year. That support has helped to ensure that record numbers of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas are being accepted to university.”

This sits uncomfortably with the finding discussed in detail here that on the most recent data more than  1 in 4 of the target group are not benefiting from the minimum income – and in most cases that’s because they are taking only the grant element – they are non-borrowers.   Record numbers may be being accepted, as elsewhere in the UK, but large numbers trying to get by on a grant of £1,750, or less, alone, doesn’t sound like good news for retention – another issue raised in the discussion.  The new access commission, whose creation formed a further part of the defensive line, might want to look at that.  The detailed terms of reference for the commission are not yet as far as I can tell available anywhere, so whether it will look at student funding is unclear.

None of these exchanges appear to have been reported in the media, so the government’s lack of robust lines here may not be a significant problem for them.  But their problem is nonetheless apparent.

Footnote: FMQs on student support: 12 March 2015, full text (available on Scottish Parliament site here)

University Students (Support)
  • 5. Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab):

    To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government is giving to the poorest university students. (S4F-02659)

  • The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon):

    One of this Government’s proudest achievements is the restoration of free higher education. In addition to free tuition, our minimum income guarantee provides students from the poorest households with £7,500 of living-costs support every year. That support has helped to ensure that record numbers of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas are being accepted to university.

    However, we recognise and I believe strongly that we must do much more. That is why I announced in the programme for Government that we will form a commission on widening access to advise on the clear milestones that we must meet to ensure that every child has the same chance of going to university, and what practical measures we need to take to ensure that we achieve that ambition.

  • Iain Gray:

    The fact of the matter is that this Government in recent years has systematically cut maintenance grants for the poorest university students. In fact, such students in Scotland now receive a maximum of £1,750. Students in their position in England and Northern Ireland receive twice that, and in Wales they receive three times that level of grant support. Indeed, apart from Iceland, where there are no maintenance grants—

  • The Presiding Officer:

    Can we get a question, Mr Gray?

  • Iain Gray:

    —every single country in western Europe provides more support for poorer students than Scotland does. The First Minister has talked a lot about hypothetical cuts today—

  • The Presiding Officer:

    Question.

  • Iain Gray:

    I am talking about a real cut. Will the First Minister reverse it, as Labour has promised to do?

  • The First Minister:

    Of course, the students in England to whom Iain Gray refers pay tuition fees. Students in Scotland do not pay tuition fees. For students who are living at home, our minimum income guarantee of £7,500 a year for students from the poorest backgrounds is the highest in the UK.

    I agree that we need to do more. I hope that Iain Gray and I can perhaps accept that we agree on this. We have to do more to support students from the most disadvantaged parts of our country to access university if that is what they want to do. That is why I have already announced the intention to set up the widening access commission.

    However, I think that people should be cautious about believing a word that Labour says when it comes to student support. After all, it was Labour that said in the 1997 election that it would not introduce tuition fees, but did introduce tuition fees after the election. It was Labour that said in the 2001 election that it would not introduce top-up tuition fees, but then after the election did introduce top-up tuition fees.

    I stand by this Government’s record on student support. We will continue to take action to improve it. I do not think that people will believe a word that Labour says when it comes to students.

  • George Adam (Paisley) (SNP):

    NUS Scotland described the Scottish Government’s student support package as

    “the best support package in the whole of the UK”.

    Does the First Minister agree that it is a bit rich for parties that were pro-tuition fees to try to rebrand themselves as parties for students?

  • The First Minister:

    As I said, people cannot believe a word that Labour says. Labour has consistently broken its promises on tuition fees.

  • Iain Gray:

    What about “Dump the debt”?

  • The Presiding Officer:

    Order.

  • The First Minister:

    I know that Labour does not like hearing this, but it fought the 1997 election on a “No fees” promise: it broke that promise. It fought the 2001 election on a “No top up fees” promise: it broke that promise. I heard somebody shout, “What about in Scotland?” When Labour was in office in the Scottish Government it moved tuition fees from the front door to the back door, but it still imposed tuition fees. You cannot trust Labour on student support. You can trust the Scottish National Party, because we abolished tuition fees.

  • John Scott (Ayr) (Con):

    The First Minister will be aware of the high drop-out rate of students from Scottish universities, particularly from the University of the West of Scotland. What help can the Scottish Government give to both students and universities to address that difficult, sensitive and complex problem.

  • The First Minister:

    That is a difficult and complex problem and it is an important challenge. I want the widening access commission to look not just at how we support and encourage more students from the poorest backgrounds to access university, but at how we support them to carry on through their university courses, complete those courses and graduate. As the widening access commission is set up and developed, I will be very keen to share our thinking on that with members from across the chamber.

    I am absolutely determined that we will do everything that we can to ensure that every young person in Scotland has an equal chance of going to university and completing that university education. I hope that all of us across the chamber, regardless of our party, will come together to support that.

  • Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD):

    In the recent budget negotiations, Scottish Liberal Democrats urged the Deputy First Minister to increase the earnings threshold for repaying student loans from just under £17,000 to £21,000, which is the threshold in the rest of the United Kingdom. That could save young graduates £268 a year and the Government could do it immediately, with no impact on its budget. The First Minister says that she wants to do more, so will she explain why her deputy rejected that move?

  • The First Minister:

    We will continue to consider those issues. Although the different threshold that Liam McArthur referred to is in place, when students here pay back their loans they pay them back at a lower rate of interest to compensate for that. Nevertheless, Liam McArthur has raised a legitimate issue that he has raised before, and it is one that the Government will continue to consider.

– See more at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9831&i=90143&c=1807783&s=#sthash.a6WyfNId.dpuf

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