Joe has written an article for the Irvine Herald on his support for the NUS Scotland 'Stop Student Poverty' campaign.
I am pleased to be backing NUS Scotland’s ‘Stop Student Poverty’ campaign because student poverty, and debt, in Scotland is currently rocketing.
In their 2007 manifesto the SNP promised that;
“An SNP government will…..replace the expensive and discredited Student Loans system with means-tested student grants. We will remove the burden of debt repayments owed by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates”
In power they have done the opposite.
The average Scottish Student Awards Agency (SAAS) student loan has increased by a staggering 61% to £5,020 whilst non-repayable grants and bursaries for university students from the poorest backgrounds have been cut by around 35%. The effect has been a fresh new debt mountain for local students.
In 2010 the total student debt in Cunninghame South was £4million. By 2014 the total was £13.2million and it is set to quadruple by the end of this financial year.
Despite North Ayrshire remaining an area with high levels of social deprivation almost £1million less is being provided by the SAAS to local HE students in non-repayable grants. The number receiving this non-repayable support has fallen by 185 since 2010.
Then there are the SNP’s changes to the travel expenses system.
Statistically students from the poorest backgrounds are the least likely to move away to study and therefore most likely to rely on public transport to commute.
A few years ago a student commuting would have been able to claim back the full cost of their travel over the student year from SAAS. For local students who travelled to Glasgow that could be up to £1000 a year. Now, however, every student gets a small travel supplement added onto their SAAS loan which not only fails to cover the cost of a lot of students travel but also adds to their debt as it is repayable.
Local college students also face a travel problem. The SNP’s forced college mergers has forced some students, who would have traditionally studied at James Watt College, to travel to Kilmarnock or Ayr to study the course of their choice. This entails extra travel costs but they can only be reimbursed through discretionary funds which are usually overprescribed.
All of this is before you factor in annual shortfalls in College bursary budget.
Each year the Scottish Funding Council undertake an exercise called ‘in-year distribution’ which allows College’s to apply for additional bursary funding if they don’t have enough to meet demand.
This year Scottish College’s told the Scottish Funding Council they needed £14.7million more and they only received an additional £3.5million leaving a huge shortfall of £11.2million.
Ayrshire College asked for just shy of £2million and got £580,000 from the Funding Council leaving a £1.4million shortfall.
Whilst I am pleased that the Scottish Government, after being shamed into doing so by NUS Scotland’s campaign, have decided to use some of the additional funding they have received from the Barnett Formula to plug the gap this year these shortfalls are an annual problem and the system needs changed to deliver a long term solution.
The problem is that there is no funding entitlement, like there is with Higher Education (HE), for Further Education (FE) students. This has created a postcode lottery where FE students in some parts of Scotland may have no problem receiving a College bursary whilst in other areas bursary budgets can’t meet demand.
NUS Scotland are clear – student poverty is on the increase as students struggle with the cost of living. They have many examples of students being forced to use food banks or take out commercial loans on top of their student ones just to make ends meet. That’s why the Stop Student Poverty campaigns three calls should be supported.
Firstly, the underfunded, outdated, discretionary and postcode lottery model of FE student funding must be reformed. Failure to do so will see local College students face a bursary funding system which either runs out too soon or doesn’t cover the cost of living.
Rather than be shamed into topping the fund up every year why not reform it, deliver funding entitlement to FE students and provide a long solution to the problem?
Secondly, I opposed the SNPs cuts to HE bursaries for the poorest students from the start so I am happy to support calls for them to be reserved. The NUS are also right that non-repayable grants and bursaries should increase year-on-year in line with rises in the cost of living.
And finally we must deliver a fairer deal on postgraduate study. At a time when young people, including graduates, are struggling to find employment we shouldn’t have a postgraduate system which depends on a student’s bank balance rather than their talents. Undergraduate tuition is free in Scotland so why should postgraduate study cost students thousands of pounds?
When it comes to financially supporting our young people in FE and HE there really is a better way and I am happy to support it.