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Cuts? What Cuts? The Scottish Government tries out a new line

May 16, 2015

[Update: the Cabinet Secretary wrote to Michael McMahon on 21 May, accepting the need to correct the record: see here.]

Invoking the spirit of Jim Callaghan (or more strictly Supertramp), on Wednesday the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning told the Scottish Parliament:

For the record, it is important to recognise that there has been no reduction in bursaries

The full text of her exchange with Michael McMahon MSP is at the foot of this post: his question drew on this FT piece.

A guest post on this site awaits any reader who can come up with a  convincing argument for  how the Minister’s statement can be justified.  They will be expected to address that:

  • the amount of bursary a student gets at any given income decreased, often substantially, between 2012-13 and 2013-14 (see table here: Scottish bursary year to year comparison)
  • YSB entitlement had already fallen in real terms in the years up to  2012-13: see post here;
  • total spending on all non-repayable student support, including those things technically described as bursary, fell substantially between 2012-13 and 2013-14, and also fell between 2006-07 and 2012-13 (table A9 here);
  • total numbers of students claiming anything called a bursary fell between 2012-13 and 2013-14  and is now lower than at any point since the introduction of   Independent Student Bursary (ISB – see below), while the total number getting any kind of non-repayable grant support is lower than at any point in the past decade (table A8 here).

The only trend-bucker  is the SG’s introduction of Independent Student Bursary in 2010 – and even that only operated at its initial level for 3 years before being cut in 2013.

Even the fiercely pro-independence blog Wings Over Scotland has recently noted that bursaries”were substantially reduced in 2014 under austerity cuts” (in a post defensive of the SG’s record – A Difficulty With Facts, 7 April).

Ms Constance may have had in mind her plan to announce a small increase in bursary two days later (see here): that however only moderates the 2013 cuts, even ignoring that it hadn’t been announced at the point she was speaking and is not being back-dated.

Perhaps “no reduction” was meant to apply only to the past year  or since the most recent change of Minister, invoking  a sort of permanent Year Zero, in which  governments cannot be held accountable for anything they did more than 12 months ago.  Would-be guest bloggers are not permitted to submit this as an argument.

This is the sort of thing which might normally be expected to lead to a correction of the parliamentary record: see 1.2(c) of the Scottish Ministerial Code.  Whether the record will be corrected, as it should be, remains to be seen.  It’s hard to see in what other context the denial of the existence of £35m worth of cuts to public spending affecting poorer people would be regarded as unimportant.

The rest of Ms Constance’s response brings out how weak the government’s defensive lines remain here, with the rebuttal resting on:

  • The current Scottish Labour Leader’s past support for tuition fees (deemed as always more relevant than the SNP’s past promise to restore grants and “dump” student debt).
  • A comparison of the average final debt of Scottish students compared to the rest of the UK.  The  substantial difficulties with that comparison are explained in this post: in essence, these are figures reflecting policy pre-2013 and mask substantial variation round the average, according to income.
  • The introduction of the minimum income guarantee, discussion of which elides loan and grant and which also, as this post shows, is benefitting far fewer students that the SG originally predicted, not least because many appear to be rejecting the large amount of loan required to achieve it.
  • The increase  in the total value of living cost support, which again blurs the distinction between loan and grant: the increase was generated entirely through additional loan.

 

Apart from the surprising  assertion that bursaries have not been cut, these points are all familiar from earlier government responses.  In other words, the Scottish Government continues to have no good answers when challenged specifically on its record on grant and the regressive effects of its decisions on student funding.  There is of course a reason for that.

 

Full text of question and response discussed above

 

Michael McMahon:

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the information that was published recently in the Financial Times that indicates that funding for student grants in Scotland has fallen as support for loans has risen and that Scotland now has the lowest rate of grant in western Europe; that, since 2007, spending on income-related student grant in Scotland has almost halved in real terms; and that Scotland is the only part of the UK where borrowing levels are highest among students from poor backgrounds? Does the cabinet secretary agree that the research shows that the net effect of Scottish Government policies is a resource transfer from lower-income households to higher-income ones? Does she believe that the findings of the research reflect a progressive agenda?

Angela Constance:

Mr McMahon and the Labour Party would have far more credibility on the issue if the leader of Labour had not spent all his career opposing free higher education and being a proponent of tuition fees.

For the record, it is important to recognise that there has been no reduction in bursaries and, when we compare average student loan debt in Scotland with that in the rest of the United Kingdom, the average for Scotland is £7,500, compared with £20,000 in England in particular. As for our offer to students, as I mentioned, we made a commitment to a minimum income guarantee. Our manifesto spoke of £7,000, and we have delivered a minimum income guarantee of £7,500. It is important also to recognise that there was a 23 per cent increase in the value of the average student support package for 2013-14.

 

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