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Grants make for an early Holyrood/Westminster problem for the SNP

July 31, 2015

Student grants look set to provide one the first clear illustrations of the difficulties of being in opposition in one place and in government in another.

An early day motion put down by Jeremy Corbyn on 13 July stating:

That this House notes the increase in the participation of working class students in higher education since maintenance grants were reintroduced; condemns the proposal to cut grants as a direct attack on the poorest people accessing higher education in England; further notes that the transition from a subsidy to a loan will push the poorest into the highest level of debt; and urges the Government to halt these plans in favour of a system whereby students can access more generous grants in order to cover the rising costs of living.

has been signed by three SNP MPs (Chris Law, Christopher Stevens and Michelle Thomson – though not Mhairi Black, famously the most recent graduate at Westminster). But there’s a catch.

In 2013, student grants in Scotland were cut very significantly – some 40% or £35m was removed from spending on means-tested student grant. The worst affected students lost over more than £1,500, or more than half their grant – some mid-course. As now proposed in England, the lost grant was replaced with loan.  As  result, Scotland became the only part of the UK where the less your family earned, the more you were expected to borrow.  England will go the same way from next year, as the motion notes.  The changes in England are at least being phased in for new starts only.

A motion put down in the Scottish Parliament in June 2013 seeking reversal of the grant cuts in Scotland received very unsympathetic treatment from government backbenchers. The motion, S4M-06843, moved by Hugh Henry (Lab) stated:

That the Parliament notes the introduction of the minimum income guarantee for students; notes that grants for lower-income students are being cut; believes that lower-income students are being financially disadvantaged in Scotland compared to elsewhere in the UK; does not accept that lower-income students should be disadvantaged in order to provide support for those from better-off households, and believes that the cuts to grants for lower-income students should be reversed in order to address inequality in access to higher education in Scotland.

No government backbencher signed it, those who spoke in the debate were uniformly critical of the opposition for proposing it and all votes from the government side were for a replacement which removed all criticism (indeed, mention) of the cut.

It may be significant that the SNP members signing the Westminster motion all did so in the first few days after it was put down. It is possible that the tension may have been spotted, but not quite in time to stop a few people from going with their instincts.

The grant cuts at Westminster deserve to be challenged. It’s a pity that a similar challenge in Scotland received such a different response from the SNP in government, but it would be good to think that these three MPs might now use their position in that party to challenge from within decisions made on grants in Scotland which the evidence here suggests they must believe to be wrong.



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