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The Greens and grants: a cross-border contrast

September 6, 2015

There are two separate Green parties in the mainland UK: one for England and Wales and one for Scotland.  As the UK government has followed Scotland by planning cuts to student grants, the reaction of the Green Party at Westminster has brought out how different the response of the Scottish Greens has been.

England

Since the UK government announced its intention to abolish grants for new students from England from 2016, the Green Party of England and Wales has been especially active in organising opposition, quickly  announcing that it would “campaign furiously” against the move (badged as #KeepThe Grants).  It has supported an early day motion (discussed here) and launched a petition on 38 Degrees, which has collected almost 45,000 signatures. It reportedly hopes to call a parliamentary debate.

This is consistent with the Party’s manifesto  for the recent UK election included these commitments:

  • Cancelling student debt issued by the Student Loans Company and held by the government. Taking account of the loans that it is expected would never be re-paid, the total value of these loans is estimated to be around £30 billion. Assuming that these loans would be paid off over the next 25 years, and taking account of interest, this amounts to around £2.2 billion a year in revenue that the government would not receive.
  • Reintroducing student grants costing £2.2 billion over the Parliament. In the longer run we would support student living costs through the Basic Income.

(Watchers of Scottish politics will recognise that very similar commitments were included in the SNP’s 2007 manifesto.)

Scotland

In the summer of 2012, the Scottish Government announced changes to the student funding system in Scotland, to take effect for all students from autumn 2013. These changes involved a 40% cut to spending on student grants, with the gap to be made up by loan (with further loan made available, to increase the total amount of upfront funding).  The net effect was a substantial increase in the borrowing required by poorer  students just to maintain their existing levels of support: cash losses were typically between around £900 and £1600 a year, including for students mid-course. More loan was also made available to middle and higher income students, to increase their access to some form of support.  Total student borrowing rose by 69% in 2013-14.  The changes meant that, as in England from next year, the poorest students were now expected to be the heaviest borrowers.  All these effects are described in more detail elsewhere on this site.

The grant cuts were not immediately obvious from Scottish Government statements, as they were not revealed to be part of the package in the relevant news release: however, by October they had come to light and since 2013 have received a reasonable amount of media coverage.

The response from the Scottish Greens here has been very different from that of their counterparts at Westminster.  Searching the party’s website (using individually “student”, “grant”, “bursary”, “loan” and “debt”) and googling more generally, they do not appear to have made any statement over the past three years criticising these cuts or the resulting increased debt.

The only occasion on which the party appears to have taken a public position on the changes was a parliamentary debate on 5 June 2013, on a motion put down by the Labour Party which included a call to reverse the grant cuts (see below).  Neither of the two Scottish Green MSPs (Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone) used the occasion to speak against the cuts, meaning either that they did not request to speak or were not called to speak, despite a request: it is not possible to tell which.  They instead voted with the government, to defeat the motion (emphasis added):

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.

by voting in support of a government amendment which removed any reference to the cuts:

The Parliament believes that access to university should be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay; further believes that neither upfront nor backdoor tuition fees have any place in Scotland; welcomes the removal of tuition fees, saving around 125,000 students up to £27,000 compared with England; further welcomes the introduction of the minimum income guarantee to give the poorest students a minimum income of £7,250 per year in maintenance support from 2013-14 and the increase in the minimum level of student loan to £4,500 a year for every eligible student, and agrees with comments by the National Union of Students Scotland that Scotland has ‘the best support package in the whole of the UK.

This was surprising, for although the manifesto for the Scottish Greens at the last Holyrood election in 2011 was more cautious on student funding than the one for England and Wales in 2015, it still touched on debt, stating:

we will place a priority on funding education and research, ending student poverty, and keeping student debt down

The party had also made a number of statements in the period leading to the election, highlighting the SNP’s failure to meet its commitments on student debt, stating:

(on 12 March) Alex Salmond deceived students before, in 2007 when he pledged to abolish student debt, a policy they dropped as soon as they took office… Patrick Harvie MSP said: “Many people fell for the SNP pledge to scrap student debt in 2007 … That pledge in 2007 wasn’t in the small print, either. It was one of their seven key pledges, and it was just as empty then as today’s hot air.”

(on 16 March)  Ahead of the last election the SNP promised to abolish student debt, but this pledge was quickly abandoned when they came to office. … Like Labour, the Tories and now the Lib Dems, the SNP have let students down and that will not be quickly forgotten.

In 2015 the party’s Westminster manifesto covered the party’s position on tuition fees in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but was silent on grants:

We support maintaining free university tuition in Scotland and ending tuition fees across the UK

However, a BBC report of the manifesto launch reported that the party “wants a non-repayable student grant” and a separate 2015 Policy Summary does make a commitment on grants:

Students in further and higher education will receive the Citizens’ Income, which will effectively restore student maintenance grants.

… all students will be entitled to a non-repayable living grant

The Scottish party could certainly argue that grant  has occupied a more ambiguous position in its recent manifestos than is the case in England and Wales.  Even so, from the language used any reader (or student voter) might reasonably have expected the Scottish Greens  to have used their position to oppose reducing the amounts provided to poorer students as cash rather than loan, rather than to avoid making critical comments and cast their votes in support of the Scottish government position.

How far are the differences explained by different circumstances in Scotland?

Most obviously, students here are not required to borrow anything for their tuition, whereas in England they face up to £9,000 in fee loans.

As a result of free tuition, it is certainly true that the withdrawal of grant in Scotland came on top of lower existing levels of debt than will be the case in England.  However, it would be heroic to argue that, simply because of free tuition, a 40% reduction in grants for low-income students, losing them over £30m a year and pushing the expected debt for a degree for those at low incomes well over £20,000, was consistent with a commitment to “keeping student debt down”.   The Green campaign at Westminster gains extra force from the higher total debt there: but it is not only about that.  It is also about the way cutting grant means the poorest students end up being the highest borrowers – as now happens in Scotland. (Also, to complicate matters, the pre-existing higher debt in England means the cuts in Scotland are in practice more likely to represent an extra real cost after graduation – explained here).

It might be argued that the Greens in England are facing the complete abolition of grants, while in Scotland a small amount remains.  However,  the Scottish maximum for a young student is only £1,750 a year, falling to £500 at incomes of just £24,000 (and the maximum for a mature student is only £750).    Young students in Scotland from homes with an income below £34,000 are now expected to borrow between 77% and 92% of their living cost support. The difference between 100% and 92% would not be much on which to hang such a large difference in response.

Further, low income students could choose either to replace their lost grant with loan or decline to borrow more.  We now know (thanks to questions put down by other parties) that a substantial minority of low-income students simply took the hit on their income rather than take on extra loan to make up the loss: the existence of a substantial group of low-income debt-averse students calls into question how far support for grant cuts was consistent with the commitment  to “ending student poverty”.

One other substantial difference between Scotland and England has been the position of the NUS.  While the NUS south of the border has been very critical of the plan to  abolish grants, the large cuts in Scotland were part of package agreed with NUS Scotland, which welcomed it. The strongly pro-government position taken by NUS Scotland in 2013 has been one of the most striking, and influential, aspects of what has happened here: it is discussed further in this post. The then NUS President, Robin Parker, signed a message to members (NUS email 22 August 2012) including the new grant rates (but no explanation that these were lower than before, focussing instead on the availability of much more funding in total)  stating:

These financial increases will come on line from September 2013, and will benefit every Scottish student studying a higher education course in a university or college, that could be over 120,000 of our members, every single year. ….Today is a great day for the student movement in Scotland, so take some time to savour it.

Although according to Wikipedia, Robin Parker had been active in the Young Greens, he stood for NUS Scotland as an independent and there’s no immediate evidence of a continuing connection to the party.  Thus a particularly close connection between NUS and the Greens does not  appear to explain the lack of critical scrutiny the party brought to bear: but it does seem likely that the NUS position played some part in neutralising any Green critique more generally.

The NUS position was influenced in turn by the Scottish Government’s decision to improve upfront living cost support at most incomes by increasing loan, so that for the first time some students would be entitled to over £7,000 in total.  Interestingly, in England the UK government is also planning to accompany grant cuts with a substantial increase in the total maximum value of living cost support, to £8,200: but in contrast to Scotland this has not been seen by the NUS or Greens in England as justifying the regressive impact of removing grant.

Conclusion: in the shade of fees

Small parties who don’t enter a coalition don’t get the chance to  break their promises in government: they have to be judged largely on how they respond to what governments do or fail to do and how well they hold them to account.

Both the English/Welsh Green Party at Westminster and the Scottish Greens at Holyrood have been confronted with grant cuts, having positioned themselves as anti-debt.  The first has opposed such cuts vigorously: the second has been supportive of the government and declined to join other opposition parties in criticism.

The particular influence of free tuition on Scottish politics is almost certainly casting a long shadow here.  Working through Scottish Green Party statements on student funding brings out how free tuition dominates their thinking. Prior to the 2011 election, a strong theme of the party’s campaigning was that the SNP could not be trusted to keep any promises on free tuition.  Grants and reduced debt have not been nearly so central to Scottish Green campaigning.

The Scottish Government has been remarkably successful in persuading those sympathetic to free tuition that (a) grant cuts have nothing to do with funding fees, but (b) opposing the cuts is equivalent to wanting to bring in not only fees, but fees at the English level, for all students (a position well-exemplified by the then Cabinet Secretary’s closing speech in the June 2013 debate).  Against that background, the unwillingness of the Scottish Greens to say anything critical about the grant cuts may be connected to their competition with the SNP to be seen as the “real” party of free tuition – a competition likely to be particularly important to the Greens, as they compete with the SNP for support from students (and ex-students) looking for a political home from within the radical independence movement.

In June 2013 the Scottish Greens may thus have been uncomfortable supporting the Labour motion,  vulnerable as it was to being read – as SNP MSPs firmly did – as an attack on free tuition.  However, that didn’t require the Scottish Greens to vote it down, far less actively to vote for the government alternative which wrote the grant cuts out of the parliamentary record.  They were free to propose an alternative amendment (as the Conservatives did) or simply to sit on their hands.  They have of course always been free to mount a campaign, start a petition or issue a statement. One of the more striking things here is that the Scottish Greens do not ever appear to have been put under pressure from any quarter to explain why they have not been more challenging about the effects of the 2013 changes on low income students.

As it is, although on 24 March 2011 the party referred to “the other parties, each of which in turn has broken promises to students”,  the Scottish Greens’ decision to support the government in June 2013, together with their more general silence on the issue, means their own actual record since 2011 sits uneasily with their manifesto and other policy commitments. The  Scottish Greens turn out to form part of the wider story of conflicting pre-election promises and post-election actions in relation to student funding to which  most parties, somewhere in the UK at some time, have contributed, as discussed here.

As a completely separate party the Greens at Westminster would be entitled to distance themselves from events in Scotland.   Ironically, come the Scottish elections in 2016, the Scottish Greens stand to benefit from the noise being made down south about grants, which will only grow as next May approaches.  They may even echo the criticisms.  On 8 July, the day the UK government announced its planned cut to grants,  Patrick Harvie retweeted two tweets: one from Caroline Lucas commenting  “Nothing progressive about saddling students with more debt and making future generations pay for problems of today” and one from a Scottish Green Party press officer and prospective Holyrood candidate for next year,  stating “Abolishing grants for poor students while cutting inheritance tax on dead millionaires. Subtlety isn’t his strong point, is it?” (the original of this second tweet was retweeted over 200 times, helping secure an association between the Scottish Greens and opposition to grant cuts).

Come next May, many voters will probably be unaware that in voting for the Scottish Greens they will be voting for a quite separate party from the one represented by Caroline Lucas,  which unlike its counterpart at Westminster does not have a track record of using its parliamentary standing to challenge grant cuts or rising debt for poorer students.

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