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Putting the Education Committee to the test on student support

November 23, 2015

Tomorrow the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee will hold a one-off session looking at student funding in Scotland.

This will be a real test of how far the Committee is capable of subjecting government policy to an evidenced-based critical eye.

The witnesses are mostly weel-kent faces at the Committee’s table, organisationally and/or individually.  With the possible exception of Who Cares? Scotland, it has not used this as a chance to bring in perspectives from beyond the established policy circuit on higher education and student funding. The witnesses are:

  • Angus Allan, Vice Principal, South Lanarkshire College, Colleges Scotland;
  • Robert Foster, Corporate Parenting Officer for Further Education and Higher Education, Who Cares? Scotland;
  • Vonnie Sandlan, President, National Union of Students Scotland;
  • Mary Senior, Scotland Official, University and College Union Scotland;
  • Alastair Sim, Director, Universities Scotland

The Committee has chosen not to call anyone from government.

Here are some questions.  The fewer of these are asked – or asked, but have the discussion on them prematurely closed down –  then the less interest the Committee will have shown in the situation of the tens, potentially hundreds, of thousands of Scottish students from low-income backgrounds who have been, are or will be at the sharp end of the decision to run down grant levels in Scotland. Fail to explore these points and any general concern expressed tomorrow about students from more disadvantaged backgrounds risks fair criticism as crocodile tears.

The questions are  these (or versions of them):

  • is it right that within Scotland  students from poorer backgrounds have the highest average borrowing and now typically face a government debt after four years approaching £25,000, while those from better-off homes will finish with less, often no, such debt?
  • should we be worried that 25% of young students who are eligible for Young Student Bursary are not topping up at all with loan? What are the implications of a student from a family with an income below £34,000 trying to survive in full-time higher education on nothing more than a grant of between £500 and £1,875 a year?
  • should we be concerned that the total number of students claiming a means-tested grant has been in decline since the 2013 changes were made, so that  it is now more than 10% lower than in 2010-11?

See most recent SAAS stats: Table A8

  • should the Committee be concerned that the quality of the  evidence provided to it by the government at various points has made harder its scrutiny of the treatment of low-income students?

The background to most of these points is contained in my evidence to the Committee, which was the only material submitted to it which analysed in depth the impact of the 2013 changes to student support in Scotland.  However, briefer reference to grant cuts, high borrowing at low incomes and/or, in a couple cases, unequal debt distribution were also included in the submissions from Universities Scotland, Colleges Scotland, the student unions from Edinburgh and Stirling Universities and Who Cares? Scotland (the first time these issues have been picked up in public outside the media and party politics, I think).

The third point has only become clear since statistics were published after the closing date for submissions. But it matters.  How have we lost 5,000 low-income students from the system when overall student numbers are rising?

The Committee session starts at 10am tomorrow (Tuesday 24 November) and should be available via the parliament’s TV channel.

Anyone watching the Committee for the first time may find it useful to know that the Convenor (Stewart Maxwell) is a member of the government party and that George Adam MSP is the Cabinet Secretary for Education’s Parliamentary Liaison Officer (“Parliamentary Liaison Officers (PLO) (formerly Ministerial Parliamentary Aides)  are MSPs appointed by the First Minister on the recommendation of Ministers whom they assist in discharging their duties”: from here).  PLOs are unpaid posts, often regarded as the testing ground for would-be ministers.  The Committee has nine members: five from the government party, two Labour, one Liberal Democrat and one Conservative.

If the technology allows, I’ll be live tweeting @LucyHunterB for as much it as I can.










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