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Student support, “trust” and whose words can be believed

March 18, 2015

At last week’s FMQs (discussed here), it became clear that the Scottish Government script on student support now includes “trust” as an important theme.  In the FM’s response to a question about student grants, almost half (224 words out of 465 – see footnote)  related to the theme of trustworthiness: none related to grants. Variations on the phrase that people should “not believe a word Labour says” occurred three times in this short space, suggesting this in particular is a key line.

The Scottish National Party presumably sees this as a theme that will work well for it, perhaps reflecting  research among voters – or it may just be a political gut call.  “Trust” is a powerful, simple concept and voters are unlikely to spend time trailing back through manifestos and speeches to check who said and did exactly what or when: impressions are important.

But so is what has actually happened, so this post looks at the issue of trust and party promises, in relation to student funding in higher education, for each of  the main political parties which have been in government in Holyrood or Westminster since 1999.  Each of the four is considered in more detail below, but in summary:

  • Since 1999, every party but the Conservatives which has spent a period in office  has failed to keep a major  campaign promise relating to student funding.
  • At Westminster, Labour can fairly be said to have broken its 2001 promise on fees.  But the 1997 position is at best more ambiguous – contrary to the FM’s assertion last week, the party did not campaign on a “no fees” promise.  At Holyrood, the party has either done what it promised, or modified its position  to be more generous than originally planned.
  • The Liberal Democrats at Westminster have clearly broken a promise made on fees in 2010.  At Holyrood, it’s more complex: in 1999, as a minority coalition party they were able to secure an overall improvement in the funding provided for students, but at the cost of a new form of contribution which many would still class as a “fee”.  In 2007, however, their vote in favour of abolishing the graduate endowment – as promised – was essential to that policy being achieved by a minority SNP government.
  • As a minority government at Holyrood from 2007, the SNP clearly broke a promise to increase grants and abolish student debt, which formed a high profile element of its campaign in the run-up to that election.  As a majority government from 2011, it  has gone even further, substantially reducing grant  and  increasing borrowing: but even if that move was unexpected, it has not broken any 2011 manifesto promise in doing so.  It has, as promised, increased support at the lowest incomes to over £7,000, relying on loan to do this. The SNP did propose to break a commitment on FE bursaries after 2011, but a campaign against that was successful.

For the new line on trust to work for the SNP,   it has to be promises relating to fees, but not those relating to grants (or loans), which are regarded as politically relevant: as the FM put it, “You can trust the Scottish National Party, because we abolished tuition fees.”  The SNP evidently feels little vulnerability in running lines on trust: no equivalent to the  Nick Clegg apology should be expected, in relation to grants and debt.

The political judgement about which will most excite the media and (at least some) voters  – fees or grants – may well be right. What that tells us about political  and media dynamics – not least, the socio-economics of political power –  in contemporary Scotland is a separate, fascinating question.

In alphabetical order:

Conservatives

Over the period, the Conservatives have only been in government since 2010, at Westminster.  The 2010 Conservative election manifesto said the party would:

consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding, so that we can unlock the potential of universities to transform our economy, to enrich students’ lives through teaching of the highest quality, and to advance scholarship; and, provide 10,000 extra university places this year, paid for by giving graduates incentives to pay back their student loans early on an entirely voluntary basis

They went on to introduce fees capped at £9,000, rather than Browne’s uncapped model, and otherwise followed many of the recommendations (such as a higher loan repayment threshold).  No additional incentives for early repayment have been introduced, but early repayment penalties – briefly considered as part of the post-2012 arrangements – have been rejected.

In Scotland, the Conservatives had an informal working relationship with the SNP during their period of minority government 2007-11.  They voted against the abolition of the graduate endowment, which was consistent with their 2007 manifesto, which had stated that they did not have “any particular difficulty with the idea of a student contributing towards the cost of their education”.

Whether or not one agrees with Conservative student funding policy,  in government (and in looser informal arrangements) the party has not breached a manifesto commitment in this area since 1999.

Labour

Labour’s trustworthiness on student funding was the main focus of last week’s exchange. The FM stated last week that,  “You cannot trust Labour on student support”.

She took the problem back to 1997, saying “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 …  I know that Labour does not like hearing this, but it fought the 1997 election on a “No fees” promise: it broke that promise”.   The Labour 1997 manifesto was in fact silent on fees:

The improvement and expansion needed cannot be funded out of general taxation. Our proposals for funding have been made to the Dearing Committee, in line with successful policies abroad.The costs of student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis, from the career success to which higher education has contributed. The current system is badly administered and payback periods are too short. We will provide efficient administration, with fairness ensured by longer payback periods where required.  [Note: Labour’s submission to Dearing had been to put all maintenance onto loan, rather than  to introduce fees.]

But the accusation that Labour broke a promise on fees in 1997 is not new.  The same claim was investigated by Channel 4’s “Fact checker” here which concluded that

“Mr Howard’s claim of a broken promise actually rests on an article in the Evening Standard a couple of weeks before polling day in 1997. The Standard had published a list of 50 questions for Mr Blair and on 14 April it published the answers. Question six was “Will Labour introduce tuition fees for higher education?”  Mr Blair’s answer was: “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education”. His reply has been thrown back at him ever since.  It is possible to argue that he never said he would not introduce tuition fees, only that he had “no plans” to do so at that time, and any plans came after the publication of the Dearing report in July 1997.

After the election, the “no plans” response quickly became central to criticisms of Labour’s decision to bring in fees (as a bit of googling  shows), but it is hard to tell at this remove how widely reported the line was during the campaign itself, beyond the 14 April edition of the Evening Standard: all references to it that I have so far found are from after the election.  In  the 1997 election, tuition fees were not the totemic political issue they have since become: they did not even feature in that year’s SNP manifesto, despite the Dearing Committee being by then in full swing.  If the most that critics of the policy could later find was one “no plans” response to one non-national paper, it seems likely that there wasn’t much more said.  In that case, it is over-stating the case to suggest that  Labour “fought the 1997 election on a “No fees” promise”.  The manifesto itself  indeed made clear that the party saw an increased role for student contributions, albeit only for maintenance.

The FM was on stronger ground in saying, “It was Labour that said in the 2001 [Westminster] election that it would not introduce top-up tuition fees, but then after the election did introduce top-up tuition fees.”  In 2001, the party stood on a clear “no top up fees” promise and then introduced variable fees of up to £3,000. (It also re-introduced grants, but as discussed elsewhere on this site, grants are largely invisible in public and political debate.)  Channel 4 Fact checker also dissects the Labour defence of why this did not count a broken promise: there was one, but it was so angels-on-pinheads that even their own relevant minister seems to have given up on it in the end: see link above.

Invited to move her focus north, the FM said: “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.”  This is a slightly odd case to include on a charge sheet of broken promises: a minority Labour government did depart from its 1999 manifesto, but in a way which had the net effect of reducing the payments expected of students.  Their manifesto controversially had stood by the new 1998 fee regime and their position changed as result of being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  They abolished the inherited £1,000 means-tested fee, introduced an end-of-course payment (the graduate endowment)  and re-introduced grants: this required additional new investment to be found, brought down borrowing for some students, and did not increase it for any.   It’s perfectly usable as an example of Labour not taking the chance to abolish student contributions – but that’s a different thing from breaking a promise.

In 2003, Labour stood for Holyrood on a platform of retaining the graduate endowment, which – in a second coalition with the Liberal Democrats –  it did.  It also promised to “build on the introduction of student bursary grants”, which it also did, substantially increasing the value of the maximum bursary and the raising the qualifying income threshold, in 2005-06, so that spending on the Young Student Bursary rose that year from £45.5m to £65.4m.

Liberal Democrats

Although the focus at FMQs was on Labour, Liberal Democrat trustworthiness has also been a theme ( see for example, Alexander threatens further betrayal of students SNP news release 12 April 2014).

From  1999 and 2003, the Liberal Democrats were in government as the smaller member in coalition at Holyrood. In 1999, the Liberal Democrats promised to invest more in maintenance support, particularly for mature students, “abolish tuition fees for all Scottish students at UK universities” and to abolish 4th year fees in Scotland for those from elsewhere in the UK.

They ended up – like Labour – agreeing proposals based on the recommendations of the Cubie Committee, which abolished upfront fees, but replaced this with a post-graduation repayment. Grants were re-introduced, though  for mature students there was no national scheme and funding was distributed via institutions instead: these students were however exempt from the endowment.  4th year fees remained payable and students going to other parts of the UK remained liable for fees (the government argued there would be legal risks in doing otherwise).  The Liberal Democrats were criticised at the time by the SNP for breaking their promise on fees.  They defended their position by pointing to the difference between the endowment (to be used for student support, only payable after graduation) and the up-front model they had inherited.  How convincing you find this will depend on how tightly you define the concept of a “fee”.

In 2003, they stood for election in Scotland on a platform of pressing for a higher threshold for repayment of student loans across the UK and opposing “top-up fees”, which they stuck with in a further coalition.  The loan repayment rose across the UK from £10,000 to £15,000 in April 2005.

In 2007, the party stood on a platform of abolishing the graduate endowment and voted with the minority SNP government to achieve this: without Liberal Democrat votes, the policy would not have been achievable.  (They also proposed a 10% rise in bursaries, but out of office were presumably unable to persuade the SNP to do this, despite its own campaign promises, discussed below).

In government in coalition at Westminster since 2010, the Liberal Democrats have unambiguously  broken the high-profile commitment made on fees in their manifesto.

Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

Liberal Democrat ministers have since been robust in defending their decision here: but as a “broken promise”, it is unarguable and has been so thoroughly dissected across the UK and Scottish press that nothing needs adding here.

Scottish National Party

The SNP have been in government in Scotland since 2007, first as a minority administration and then with a majority from 2011.

In 2006, the party launched its “Dump the Debt” campaign,  Nicola Sturgeon saying:

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.”

Similar points were made by Fiona Hyslop in November 2006 and Alex Salmond in February 2007,  saying:

I want to talk about one of the big issues in this campaign. Big issue for the SNP. Big issue for me. And that’s the burden of Student debt. … Now the SNP’s plan is to dump the debt. Is to ask students in Scotland to have free education and to contribute to society through income tax instead of that enormous debt burden.

They were also in the SNP manifesto, which promised:

Abolition of the Graduate Endowment tuition fee
Replacing the expensive and discredited Student Loans system
Removing the burden of the debt repayments owed to the Student Loans Company by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates

In contrast to the LibDems much-photographed pledge cards  in 2010, there is little record of the campaign material on-line – but it appears to have had specially commissioned professional artwork, still visible here.  Most information about the campaign comes from secondary sources. Postcards, badges and leaflet were reportedly produced, including a communication direct to students at their home address, which was quoted as saying

It’s time to dump the debt monster … Student debt. It’ll lurk around your home like a bad smell on the landing…That’s why SNP will replace student loans with student grants… And we will write off the accumulated debt still owed.

Whether or not it is true that in 2007, as one student activist claimed in 2008, “Many students only voted SNP because of their pledge to scrap student debt,” it was an unambiguous, high-profile campaign aimed at the group most directly affected.

The SNP did abolish the graduate endowment.  On grant, over the period from 2007 to 2011, a new grant was introduced for mature students (in 2010) at a lower rate than the Young Student Bursary.  YSB was initially  increased a little below inflation and then frozen in value in 2010.   Over the period, some new cash made available was converted into loan subsidy. In its final months in office the government revealed to a parliamentary committee that it was planning to abolish the travel grant – then worth some £20m – and convert this into more loan funding, although the move was not widely picked up until it took effect in the summer of 2011.  Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, total spending on non-repayable grants fell slightly in cash terms, and by around 10% in real terms. Total annual student  borrowing in 2007-08 was £183.3m, rising by 2010-11 to £243.9m  (figures in cash terms: real terms rise of 16%).     No loan was written off.

This is an unambiguous case of a broken promise.

A consultation paper issued in December 2008 listed several “financial and political constraints which led the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth to state in Parliament that the 2008-11 budget did not include proposals to service graduate debt”.   Essentially, the arguments hung on:  technical issues which (by implication) had not been clear prior to the election; unpredictable external events – i.e. the 2008 crash; and being a minority government.

Given  the Liberal Democrats had also gone into the election promising increases in grant, being in a minority does not easily explain the real-terms fall in  grant levels.  The economic crisis in 2008 was unforeseeable: but the  SNP’s proposals had been criticised as unaffordable as early as autumn 2006.  Such criticism had met with a powerful response.  At one point, Alex Salmond lodged a strongly-worded complaint (not eventually upheld) with the head of the civil service that civil servants had been used to provide ministers with figures for the cost of the policy.  The technical position on loans was unchanged over the period, so a failure to anticipate any constraints  there was – arguably, at least – not a strong defence.  There had been time to identify systemic problems: the  party had reportedly been considering debt write-off as a policy since 2005.   Fundamentally, the scale of new funding the government found for student support fell far short of the priority it had earlier suggested grant and loan reduction would be given.

The SNP’s best defence here is that NUS Scotland encouraged it to use cash to release more loan, and thus give students more to live on upfront, rather than invest in grant: but its manifesto and campaign commitments had not come with the proviso that they might be subject to complete re-negotiation with the NUS.

The SNP reversal did not go unnoticed.  Google a little and there are plenty of press releases, press reports and blogs which picked it up at the time:  it re-emerged as the next election approached in 2011. But over time it has not stuck in the public consciousness.

In 2011, the SNP promised only to “start on the task of setting a minimum income which should in time equate to around £7,000”.  This they have done, raising the minimum total combined value of support to  £7,250 from 2013-14 (now £7,500), for students from homes with an income below £17,000: it falls to £6,750 at incomes above that.  However, in tandem with this, grants have been cut  significantly.  That turns out to raise a question about how useful the theoretical minimum income is to the most debt averse poor students in practice (see here).  Borrowing has also risen and is now planned to be £468m a year.

The SNP’s reluctance to acknowledge the shift away from grant and towards loan since 2011 suggests  some continuing sensitivity, but was not in breach of that year’s manifesto commitments.  Whether voters would have anticipated the grant cuts and loan rises as likely SNP policy, given the strong campaigning stance it had previously taken, is a finer judgement.  Student debt continued to feature more subtly as something the party was generally “against” (for example, as implied here in an answer provided by a candidate in 2011, or in  press releases).   Some students certainly thought the grant cuts were out of line with signing an NUS pledge to “improve student support” (as Alex Salmond is pictured holding here).  Voters who cared might reasonably have assumed there were “no plans” for a 40% cut to grants and a near-doubling of student loans.

The SNP did propose after the 2011 election to reverse a manifesto undertaking in relation to bursaries for further education.  The manifesto said, “We will continue with increased support for college bursaries, allowing us to provide 50,000 a year for each of the next five years.”  The Minister, Angela Constance, confirmed before the election that  “we will guarantee the additional funding for bursaries not just for next year but for the full four year parliament”. This letter from NUS Scotland to the Scotsman expressed their unhappiness about plans revealed that autumn to remove £11 million from the FE bursary budget.  The campaign to reverse this cut was successful, however, so the manifesto commitment has been met, although not in entirely trustworthy circumstances.

Footnote

The text below is the FM’s side of exchanges with Iain Gray MSP, the Labour Education spokesperson, with the interventions removed and  emphasis added (full text of exchange here).

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.

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.

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

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.

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