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The Scottish Government on student loan: just like grant, except when it’s not

June 2, 2015

Today’s Herald reports that Unison has published research into the support of student nurses and midwives, as a contribution to the current review of financial support for this group.  The review was announced in November  – more about it here.

Unison is pressing for increases in bursaries.

The response from the Health Secretary is interesting reading when looked at in the broader context of student funding (emphasis added):

The core element of nursing and midwifery student support in Scotland remains non-means tested and non-repayable, unlike the support package for nursing and midwifery students in England, where the majority of potential funding support is either means tested or repayable.

We’ll ensure that support for nursing and midwifery students in Scotland fairly reflects the needs of all students with diverse personal circumstances.

In response to criticism, the obligatory comparison with England is made.  But there’s an edge here. Ms Robison could have added that for all other students in Scotland also, “the majority of potential funding support is either means tested or repayable”.

Indeed, the government has made a virtue of how more use of loans has allowed it to respond to concerns expressed by NUS Scotland about immediate financial pressures. If student support being “either means tested or repayable” is a problem, someone needs to have a word with the Education Directorate and indeed the First Minister.  The “minimum income guarantee” of £7,500 for students was the centrepiece of the FM’s recent attempt to see off criticism of grant cuts for poorer students:  just under  25% of that comes as means-tested grant and the rest is repayable loan.

Student nurses and midwives are in a different position from most other students, coming closer to serving an apprenticeship on the wards: their support might be viewed as closer to a wage. This is reflected in Unison rather than the NUS acting as their advocates.  But that also means that  their capacity to take on additional jobs (as many appear to be doing) is more limited – and working too many hours elsewhere could, in extremis, presumably have public safety implications.  So concerns about hardship in this group have to be taken pretty seriously.

Which brings us back to Shona Robison’s comment.  How to read it?

Above all, it underlines is that the SG is far from having a coherent philosophy of student funding, unsure whether means-tested and repayable  student funding is good or bad and, especially,  where loan sits in relation to grant.  Are the two more or less interchangeable,  as implied by the government’s promotion of its “minimum income guarantee” for mainstream students, which it uses to meet any criticism of grant cuts? Or are loans much less good, as implied  in the quote above and in line with the SNP’s “dump the debt” campaign of 2007?

The balanced answer would be that student loans are both less desirable from the perspective of students than grants, but also a lesser evil than acute hardship or commercial debt, as long as students are willing to take them on.  It’s not a black and white issue, but one that demands nuance and honesty, whatever students are being discussed.  But Scottish Ministers seem inclined instead to take contradictory positions at either end of the spectrum, depending on which students they are talking about, what’s happening in England and, at least until now, whether debt is replacing cash subsidies for living costs or fees.

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