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Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Ross, Anas Saswar among leaders who took part.

NUS Scotland hosted “The Big Student Election Debate” on Tuesday 20 April which saw leaders and representatives from Scotland's five main parties come together to answer questions submitted by students across the country. The debate was hosted by NUS Scotland President Matt Crilly and was attended by Anas Sarwar of Scottish Labour, Carole Ford from the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Ross Greer from the Scottish Green Party, and Douglas Ross who represented the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Issues raised ranged from financial support for students, access to accommodation, and more controversially, independence.

The debate commenced with Crilly welcoming viewers and reflecting on the difficult year students have experienced and the ongoing pandemic’s effects on student life and education. The opening statements from the party representatives spelled out the key points from their manifestos and highlighted the impact these would have on students. Ross Greer, from the Green Party, claimed this was the last climate election and urged people to, “vote like our future depends on it”, also highlighting the party’s record on fighting for student tenants while promising to increase financial support for students. Nicola Sturgeon thanked students for their patience over the last year and acknowledged they had faced the biggest impact in society, setting out her party’s plans to increase financial support, focus on student mental health, and campaign for an independent Scotland which would also be reinstated in the EU. Douglas Ross also acknowledged the particular issues faced by students due to the pandemic and promised further financial support as well as a mental health action plan. Carole Ford, from the Liberal Democrats, agreed that students have been hit hard by the pandemic and wants to ensure that all those aged 16–24 are guaranteed a job as well as seeking to replace research funding lost over the last year. Finally, Anas Sarwar stated that the pandemic has emphasised deep inequalities and issues for students and the Labour Party wants to tackle exploitation in the workplace and ensure income support for students throughout the whole year, while introducing measures to tackle problems with accommodation.

On financial support and student accommodation, Sarwar, Sturgeon, and Greer agreed that more must be done to help students facing financial difficulties, especially during the difficult summer period, with Sarwar and Sturgeon promising a return to a grant-based system and Greer favouring a national hardship fund over the existing university-controlled system. Ford recommended the introduction of a scheme which would create paid graduate internships and said her party would work to enhance careers services across the sector. Douglas Ross highlighted the preventable mistake of students being convinced to move to student accommodation last September, and promised to learn from this. All representatives also agreed on the need to improve mental health services offered by colleges and universities. 

Questioned on particular support for mature students, Ford, Sarwar, and Greer stated they would campaign for an extra year of funding to allow those most affected by the events of this year to redo a year of their course if they wish. Sturgeon also agreed that more needed to be done to support mature students. On post-graduation opportunities, Greer, Ross, and Ford all drew attention to the growing importance of the green sector, with Greer promising that the Green Party would seek to aid in the transition of employment from oil and gas to renewables in order to protect jobs. 

Naturally the most controversial segment of the debate arose after Crilly asked for each participant’s opinion on independence. While the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats favoured the idea of working together within the UK to recover from the pandemic, Greer and Sturgeon each made their case for a vote on independence should pro-independence parties gain a majority in the election. Following this, a fiery exchange was had between Sturgeon and Ross which Sarwar sarcastically labelled “a great example to children and young people across the country” before himself being accused of “sitting on the fence” by both Sturgeon and Ross. Ford lamented the sudden bitter tone of the debate caused by the mention of independence before Greer replied that Brexit had been more divisive than a Scottish independence referendum.

Discussing student accommodation issues, all participants agreed that this is an important issue which must be reviewed on a larger scale and more regulation would be needed to tackle this long-term problem. 

Following this point, the participants were asked about gender-based violence on campus to which the consensus was reached that the issue extends beyond university and college campuses and affects all of society, with Ford stating the problem has increased and Greer deeming it an outrage that young people may reach college and university age without consent-based sexual education.

Next, regarding international students and the effects of the UK’s withdrawal from Erasmus, Ford and Greer hoped that the Scottish government could create a new scheme to improve upon the proposed Turing scheme, similar to that created by Wales, and Sarwar underlined the impact the pandemic has had on international students. Ross argued that the new Turing scheme would be adequate as it widens opportunities for students from all backgrounds to go abroad. Greer responded that, compared to Erasmus, the Turing scheme was inferior. 

Finally, on transgender healthcare and transgender rights, every representative agreed that “trans rights are human rights” and that healthcare for transgender people must be improved with Ford and Ross raising the issue of healthcare in general facing backlogs due to the pandemic. 

To close, each party representative gave a short statement to encourage student voters to choose them on election day. Ross highlighted the Conservatives promises to focus on recovery and the jobs market, Ford stated her party would put recovery first and prioritise jobs, Greer repeated that he believes his party has had a good voting record on student issues, Sarwar emphasised Labour’s wishes to “get back on track” together after a difficult year, and Sturgeon closed by calling the SNP the “party of free education” and said she trusted students with the future of Scotland.

You can watch the video of "The Big Student Debate" on the NUS Scotland YouTube channel by clicking here. To read more information on the Scottish parliamentary candidates running for Glasgow Kelvin, click here.


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