Students send ‘wake up call’ to SNP

Published

Ross Mathers

SRC President Gavin Lee has joined with politicians and other student presidents in condemning the Scottish Government’s failure to improve funding.
The open letter, sent to Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop, detailed alternative suggestions for student funding, after a recent parliamentary consultation resulted in no action.

Signed by representatives from 25 Scottish universities and colleges, the letter argues that students across Scotland have been let down by the Government.
It is hoped that this will help to initiate the promised reforms that have yet to happen.

It reads: “We believe the Scottish Government, by limiting the scope of its consultation on student support, has let down students and failed to listen or react to their needs. This letter should act as a wake-up call for Scotland.”

In addition to the student representatives, members of the major opposition parties, and the President of the NUS Scotland, Gurjit Singh, also signed the letter.

Claire Baker, Labour’s Shadow Further and Higher Education Minister, believes that the letter highlights the levels of dissatisfaction with the government’s stance.

She said: “This is a damning indictment of the SNP’s first two years in power. “We all stand ready to work together with the government to deliver for students who deserve to go through college or university without such a heavy financial burden. The SNP would be foolish to ignore this clear message”

Speaking to Guardian, Murdo Fraser, Deputy Leader of the Conservatives and Spokesman for Education and Lifelong Learning, justified his signing of the letter.

He explained: “The Government have allocated some £30million for student support, but we in the Scottish Conservatives believe that the way they are proposing to spend it is misguided.”

The SNP initially promised a shift from a loans-based system to one focused on grants in an attempt to alleviate student debt. However the letter argues that this would have cost at least £2 billion to implement – of which only £30 million has been set aside as part of the consultation that ran from December. It is now being proposed that the Government should use this money not to end student debts after university, but to tackle hardship faced by students whilst studying.

Gurjit Singh, NUS President, explained to Guardian why dealing with hardship has become the priority.

He said: “This is not something the NUS is leading from – it’s actually coming from our membership. We are being told time and time again that students are stuck for cash and need more money, that they’re facing hardship and can’t get jobs.”

Margaret Smith, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Education and Young People, also expressed concern over the issue of student poverty.

She told Guardian: “I am aware that debt is an issue of concern for students, and that some may argue against increasing the burden of debt on students.

“However, I do feel that forcing students to live in poverty or to rely on risky and expensive commercial, credit card-type loans is wrong, when we could increase their income and avoid hardship with Government supported loans.”

In particular the letter proposes a guaranteed £7000 minimum income for students, a greater availability of loans and a focus on not only tackling hardship, but funding for childcare too.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government argues that the inability to deliver a comprehensive reform package is down to lack of available finances.

She said: “Given the tightest spending settlement received from the UK Government since devolution, we have had to make difficult choices and are focusing on reducing student debt at source through the many policies we are introducing to tackle hardship and improve student support.”

Opposition parties, while admitting that the current financial situation does limit certain changes from being enforced, are demanding that what is available is spent in the best way.

Margaret Smith said: “A full reform of student support is not possible at this time we will not be able to ensure the minimum income guarantee of £7,000 for every student overnight, not with the money the Government has set aside.

“This is why we have advocated starting with the poorest students, supporting those students currently in receipt of the Young Students’ Bursary.”
With the closure of the consultation on student funding, the Government now plans to review all the responses with the aim of announcing the way forward in due course.