THE Scottish Government has been challenged to end the “perverse” higher education funding system amid evidence it makes poor students poorer by pushing them into debt.
Education secretary Michael Russell faced calls from the Labour party to provide “decent grants” in a Holyrood debate yesterday.
Mr Russell responded by accusing Labour of trying to take away free education without having the “guts” to say so.
The debate was held the day after Lucy Hunter, a former head of Scottish Government student support, criticised the funding system in an article for The Scotsman.
Ms Hunter argued that a cut in bursaries (grants) for all students at the start of the next academic year would result in them having to increase their borrowing to meet living costs.
Under the system, Ms Hunter claimed that students from households with an income below £25,000 would lose between £890 and £1,640 in grants a year as bursaries are replaced by larger loans.
In a debate called by Labour, the party’s education spokesman Hugh Henry said that grants decreased by £24 million and loan authorisations increased by £26m between 2010-11 and 2011-12.
“This switch to loans is hitting the poorest students the hardest,” Mr Henry said.
“Remember that over 40 per cent of full-time students supported by the Scottish Government are from households with incomes below £25,000. So they’re the ones most directly affected.
“At the same time, students with a family income of £61,000 or over will now qualify for cheap £4,500 loans.
“In other words, poorer students are being asked to subsidise better-off students. Debt is piled on to poorer students and somehow this is supposed to make it easier for them to go to university.”
Scotland stands alone in refusing to act to help poorer students succeed, he said.
“It is time to admit that this system is perverse and unfair. It’s time to move from paying lip service to social justice and to make it a reality.
“It’s time to ditch this funding system which is hitting poorest students hardest.
“It’s time to bring in decent grants now,” he said. Mr Russell rejected Labour’s criticism and insisted the Scottish Government’s policy of no up-front tuition fees is correct and will lead to widened access.
“The reality is that all of the rhetoric from Labour is about imposing student fees but they haven’t got the guts to say so,” he claimed.
“That’s the reality of where we’ve been for the last year.
“I’m absolutely clear that free education is central to my vision of the Scotland we should have.”
Fees turn people away from university, he said.
“Let’s not have these silly games about the notions Labour’s putting forward,” he told the chamber.
“Let’s actually look at the truth. In Scotland we do provide the best package of student support available anywhere in the UK. It’s something we should be proud of.”
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said his party has sympathy with Labour’s approach, which advocates targeted support for students.
“There is a choice to be made and a price has to be paid for that choice, and universal benefits for students come at the expense of those who are in most need,” he said.
“But where I have sympathy for the SNP position today is that Labour do not make clear… where the money would come from to reverse the cuts in grants for lower-income students.”