SNP shift focus on student debt pledge

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Photo: Ruby Wight

Photo: Ruby Wight

Sarah Smith

The Scottish Government has indicated to Guardian that, due to the economic climate and “a lack of parliamentary support”, a lesser priority is now being placed on its manifesto pledge to abolish student debt in Scotland.

The Government is instead changing its focus to reduce the overall levels of debt and offer more financial support in the form of loans and grants.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “By scrapping the £2300 Graduate Endowment Fee … we have already removed a significant part of most students’ debt.

“Given the tightest spending settlement received from the UK Government since devolution, the prospect of £500m in cuts to the Scottish budget next year and a lack of parliamentary support for such a move, we have had to make difficult choices.

“We must therefore prioritise funding on policies we can deliver. This Government is focusing on reducing student debt at source by introducing numerous policies to tackle hardship, improve student support and increase student income.”

In an upcoming Guardian interview with Alex Salmond, the First Minister confirmed that the SNP is still working to support students but that the current economic climate must be taken into consideration.

He said: “We will continue to try and fulfil our obligations to students, and [the extra funding] will be widely welcomed by many people.

“We intend to fulfil as many [manifesto commitments] as we possibly can but we live in a world where economic and financial circumstances have changed dramatically.”

Pauline McNeill, Labour MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, was sceptical as to how realistic the pledge was in the first place, regardless of current circumstances.

She said: “This was never a realistic policy and was actually a cynical election ploy. It is mine and Labour’s position that we should be focusing on resources tackling student hardship, through measures such as a £7000 minimum income for the poorest students and other policies such as a Tenancy Deposit Scheme which would protect students’ rent deposits.”

This comes after an announcement on October 7 that £30m — originally set aside as part of the spending review for improved student support — will be used to increase the income of up to 75,900 students in Scotland.

The new measures include providing £2m to increase the funds available to students who need help with their childcare expenses; and creating a grant for the estimated 14,000 students who do not receive parental support and previously relied solely upon loans.

The Government also plans to increase the maximum level of the income-assessed student loan by £422 in the hope that this will reduce the numbers of students relying upon commercial loans to help with their studies.

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, believes that these measures will continue to reduce student debt and increase the levels of support provided by the Scottish Government.

She said: “We recognise the pressures on students during the current economic climate, including the fact that it is now more difficult for them to find part-time work.

“The abolition of the graduate endowment fee is already benefitting more than 50,000 graduates and students by more than £2000.

“[These] measures will help us build on that and increase the income of around 75,900 students across Scotland in the next academic year, particularly those in greatest need such as students with children and independent students who don’t receive any parental help.

“They have been put together following our consultation and will ensure that, despite the financial constraints now facing us, we are able to ease some of the pressures on students at this difficult time.”

The measures are as a result of Supporting a Smarter Scotland, a Scottish Government consultation to review student finance involving opposition parties, NUS Scotland and other student bodies, including Glasgow University’s Student Representatives Council (SRC).

SRC President, Laura Laws, said: “The SRC is delighted to hear that the Scottish Government is finally planning to provide students with improved means of financial support.

“We have been working hard to ensure that financial support is increased for Scottish students and have been involved in funding consultations with the Scottish Government over the past year. It’s great to see that the Scottish Government is finally taking the financial needs of these students into consideration as a result of this consultation process.

“The planned investment shows that the Government is committed to increasing support for students living in Scotland and the funding increase will hopefully result in students, who were previously under the most financial pressure, being given more support.

“However, as many students are aware, the financial support given to Scottish students over the past few years has been far from ideal. While we welcome the new proposals, we would also like to encourage the Scottish Government to further increase the funding available to students to ensure that students are given the best financial support possible.”

The final level of increase in the Young Students Bursary and the level of grant for independent students will be decided in the coming weeks.