The higher eduction funding system in Scotland looks set to face considerable changes in the coming years.
The Scottish Government have announced various plans to update the student support structure in line with the idea that people should have access to learning on the basis of their academic merits, not on their ability to pay.
A 41-page consultation, launched in December by the Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Fiona Hyslop, will examine the different options available to tackle the financial problems currently faced by students.
The consultation has been set up in order to consider the possible replacement of student loans with grants – as was pledged by the SNP in its 2007 Election Manifesto.
However, despite this manifesto pledge, two further options have been laid out in the paper: to increase the minimum level of overall income available; or a combination that would see increasing income and a reduction in debt.
The Government has already set aside £30 million to be used in accordance with the outcome of the ongoing consultation.
A spokesperson for Fiona Hyslop expressed the SNP’s wish to see a shift towards a grants-based system.
He said: “We would like to move from loans to grants but we are responding to a specific request from parliament and allowing a range of stakeholders, including students, to have their views heard through the consultation and therefore we are open-minded about the final decision.”
The possibility that loans will not be replaced with grants has led to serious criticism from opposition parties. They claim that the consultation fails to uphold the SNP’s manifesto pledge to scrap students loans altogether.
Speaking to Guardian, Murdo Fraser, the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, made clear the Conservative Party’s view that the SNP has let down Scottish students.
He said: “The reality is that the SNP have betrayed the students of Scotland. It was entirely clear that this was a dishonest pledge as money was never going to be available within the Scottish Budget to fund such an ambitious program.”
The Labour MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, Pauline McNeill, told Guardian that she too believes the SNP had no intention of fulfilling their pledge.
She said: “This is a promise that they never intended to deliver on. They have never actually made any proposals and it’s such a costly thing to do.”
In response to such criticism, the Scottish Government has claimed its ability to make financial changes is being heavily restricted by both the current financial crisis and the policies of the Labour Government in Westminster.
A Scottish Government spokesperson told Guardian of this difficulty.
He explained: “Despite student support policy being fully devolved, student loans are funded directly by HM Treasury and not through the Scottish Government’s budget. We therefore have no control over a large proportion of this budget and must work within the restrictions placed upon us.”
Murdo Fraser has, however, rejected this as an excuse.
He said: “This situation has nothing whatsoever to do with the financial settlement from Westminster but everything to do with the fact that the SNP over-promised in advance of the election in order to attract votes and then found when coming into office that their sums did not add up.”
MSP Margaret Smith, the Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson, has also refused to accept the Government’s explanations.
She told Guardian: “The recession is not an excuse for the SNP Government to break their promise to move from a loans system to a grants system. Nor can they blame Westminster for preventing them keeping this promise.
“The simple fact is that the SNP’s back-of-a-fag-packet maths has let them down and the £30 million in their budget for this is a long way short of what they promised students.”
Despite such claims, the SNP argues that it has been successful in achieving its higher education promises, citing its abolition of the Graduate Endowment fee last year and the introduction of a £38 million package to benefit part-time students as examples.
The recent consultation is seen as a further step towards a fairer system. In addition Fiona Hyslop has recently announced advancement in financial support of postgraduate students to include part-time as well as full-time students.
As part of the student funding consultation process, Gavin Lee, SRC President, has met with MSPs to discuss the options available and the impact on Glasgow University students. He too has expressed concerns about the value of the three options set out in the consultation.
He said: “None of the proposals actually achieve what the SNP said they would in 2007 that made a lot of students vote for them. I don’t think any of the options are a step forward, they all have some significant drawback.”
Instead he proposes that all students should have access to £7000 per year, through a combination of both loans and grants.
He said: “The stance that we are going to be taking is that support for living is more important than decreasing debt. Our suggestion is that those who need it most get the biggest increase and get the £7000 figure. So those with the lowest family incomes get £7000 and incrementally it will decrease, so everyone’s funding will increase.”
However, the Government’s £30 million will not cover such a proposal which will then lead, Lee argues, to students being under-funded, resulting in the use of other forms of funding such as commercial loans which have much higher interest rates.
While no conclusion has yet been reached, Lee said that the SRC will persist in its attempts to achieve a better deal.
He explained: “We are continuing to argue for the students who need the most help, and to ensure that across the board everyone’s support is increased.”