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What are the different parties promising students in Scotland at tomorrow’s election?

  • 5 May 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Today, the HEPI blog looks at the commitments on student finance made by the five main players in this week’s elections to the Scottish Parliament. This follows on from Monday’s blog, which considered the commitments on higher education by political parties seeking election to the Senedd in Cardiff.

When it comes to higher education, the manifestoes of the Scottish parties actually cover much more than financial support for students. For example (in alphabetical order):

  • the Scottish Conservatives promise to ‘increase R&D expenditure in Scotland to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2026’, to ‘support employers, universities and colleges to come together to establish Institutes of Technology’ and to implement ‘a national student mental health action plan’;
  • the Scottish Greens promise to link some funding to ‘commitments to eliminate casual and insecure contracts and to raise the wages of the lowest paid staff’, to ‘support measures that will allow Scotland’s universities to oppose the marketisation of Higher Education’ and to ‘Support international students by continuing to place pressure on the UK government to enhance and expand the post-study work visa programme’;
  • Scottish Labour say they will ‘increase the cap on government-funded student places’, ‘require universities and colleges to act as anchor institutions in our Community Wealth Building plans’ and ‘seek to join together with Wales’ in ‘their new International Learning Exchange’;
  • the Scottish Liberal Democrats promise ‘to make sure an independence campaign doesn’t marginalise those [expert academics and researchers] from the rest of the UK’, to ensure ‘stronger support through the Scottish Funding Council for research in Scottish universities’ and to ‘fund more places at Scottish universities for Scottish students’; and
  • the SNP talk of ‘a student mental health action plan’, promise to ‘tackle student digital poverty’ and re-commit themselves to Scotland rejoining Erasmus.

So no one reading the rest of this blog on student support should assume it comprises anything like the entire package of higher education proposals for any one of the five parties (and it omits lots on further education and apprenticeships too).

In addition, it is possibly worth noting that the ALBA party, which is not considered in detail here, refers back to a past statement from its leader (Alex Salmond) that is famously enshrined in stone at Heriot-Watt University, by promising ‘The rocks will melt with the sun before ALBA will allow tuition fees to be reimposed on Scotland’s students’.

Overall, if anything stands out in the commitments on students outlined below, it is the similarities rather than the differences. No party, for example, is promising to introduce tuition fees for home students, reflecting the somewhat different views on this issue among students from Scotland, and all are promising to do more to support students’ mental health.

When it comes to the views on student support of these parties in Scotland, it’s either impressively consensual or it highlights the lack of choice offered to voters. Take your pick!

When it comes to the views on student support of these parties in Scotland, it’s either impressively consensual or it highlights the lack of choice offered to voters. Take your pick!

(Admittedly, there are another 20 smaller parties looking for votes too but not all have expressed a clear view on student funding and those which have, such as the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and the Communist Party, focus on opposing student debt.)

  1. Scottish Conservatives

We would support Scottish universities to maintain their world-leading reputation and improve access for Scottish students, including by continuing to provide free university tuition and introducing a special support payment for students in receipt of benefits.

To rebalance the relationship between academic and vocational education, we would launch a review of the post-18 education landscape in Scotland.


2. Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens believe that higher education should be free and accessible to all, regardless of income and background. Education at all levels is a social good and thriving, diverse universities are of benefit to society at large.

We will:

Suspend interest payments on student loans during maternity and paternity leave to tackle the additional costs which overwhelmingly fall on women.

Support students during the summer through a national hardship fund and the opportunity to rebalance bursaries and extend loan payments to stretch over the summer months.

Make an extra year of SAAS [Student Award Agency Scotland] funding available for those who need it. The pandemic means some students, particularly those with childcare or other care commitments, may have to repeat a year. Any student who needs it will be entitled to the SAAS funding and support required to do so without cost.

Ensure funding parity for college and university students.


3. Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour’s plan for a Minimum Student Income would ensure that Scottish domiciled full-time students, studying up to degree level enrolled in Scotland’s universities and colleges, have access to funding to help meet the cost of living while they study. We agree that no student should lose their benefit entitlements because they are in receipt of student funding and support a “special support payment” for those students receiving benefits.

Scottish Labour will improve support for estranged students, helping them to meet the cost of living in the absence of family help and looking at options for a bespoke package of support, similar to that received by care experienced students. We will also explore the possibility of student guarantor schemes at all Scottish colleges and universities so no student needs to worry about accessing housing while in education.

We will also ensure free tuition is fully funded and strengthen the pathways from Further Education to Higher Education. These changes will enable more students, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, to have the opportunity to go to university. We will increase the amount invested in teaching and wider student support for each Scottish domiciled undergraduate student and commit to growing investment in Higher Education research and innovation over the next parliament.

In order to ensure we are nurturing talent we will also widen access to postgraduate level skills, and commit to fund a new set of international scholarships to keep Scotland open and accessible in a post-Brexit world.

We will place rent controls on student accommodation, encouraging new cooperative models through a student accommodation strategy. 


4. Scottish Liberal Democrats

Students have had a rough time in the pandemic. Their studies were disrupted. They too often found themselves unfairly paying for expensive accommodation they couldn’t use, their chances of summer jobs were curtailed and the number of career opportunities shrank. Our proposals to support graduate work placements will make a real difference.

We will provide bursaries to student paramedics.

We will repair the system of bursaries and grants, noting that the SNP came to power in 2007 promising to “dump the debt” for students. After 14 years student debt has doubled. Students will not be required to repay student loans if their income is less than £25,000.


5. Scottish National Party

We remain absolutely committed to the principle that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. Scotland is the only country in the UK that offers free university education, saving Scottish students studying in Scotland up to £27,000.

As long as the SNP are in government there will not be tuition fees in Scotland.

This has helped in the drive to widen access – which now sees record numbers of students from the poorest background attend university. In the next Parliament, we will widen access further, implementing the recommendations of the Commissioner for Widening Access.

As part of this goal, we will undertake a review into the funding provision for postgraduate students.

While tuition is free for Scottish-domiciled undergraduate students in Scotland, learning is not. We have increased the financial support on offer to undergraduate students in recent years, but we are determined to go further.

We will expand our total student support package to reach the equivalent of the living wage over the next three years.

No student should lose their benefit entitlements because they are in receipt of student funding. We will introduce a special support payment so that students who are in receipt of benefits do not lose out because they are in receipt of, or entitled to, student support.

We will improve the support available to estranged students – those without parental financial support – with a package of support equivalent to the Living Wage. We will explore whether a programme of guarantorship for estranged students, who are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation within the housing market, can be created in partnership with colleges and universities.

In recognition of the impact Covid has had on the lives and opportunities of young people, particularly those entering the jobs market for the first time, we will increase the age at which young people become eligible for council tax from 18 to 22. For a young person living in a Band B property that will mean an annual saving of around £750.


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