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Hugh Reilly: Loan-based education is a backward step

Hugh Reilly in Bannerman High School Baillieston Glasgow. Hugh is also a Scotsman writer. Picture Robert Perry The Scotsman 14th June 2011

Hugh Reilly in Bannerman High School Baillieston Glasgow. Hugh is also a Scotsman writer. Picture Robert Perry The Scotsman 14th June 2011

They say you can’t put a price on education but my best guess is about £30,000. Two of my four-strong litter studied at Dundee universities with pater and mater financing their accommodation costs and drinks tab.

Not to be a burden on my disposable income, another son stayed in the family nest and completed his degree at Glasgow yoonie. Currently, my youngest son attends a Glasgow college and survives on weekly collections of “father tax” on visits to my abode.

When my children were students living away from home, they would often put out their grasping hands and ask for some of the hard-earned cash I’d won in the bookies. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” I’d say. Sadly, quoting a line from Hamlet failed to be a cue for them to put down their greedy paws and exeunt the stage.

Pointing out that, in the Merchant of Venice, Antonio almost lost half a kilo of chest flesh as a result of welching on a debt also left them unimpressed. As far as they were concerned, grants and loans were much ado about nothing.

Last week, it emerged that student bursaries are to be slashed. In bars around this great nation, impoverished drunken students crashed their discounted beer bottles on to tables in disgust at this latest outrageous attack on education.

With morning came sobriety and the welcome news that education minister Mike “Wonga” Russell has promised to ensure that, starting next year, every student can borrow a minimum of £4,500 per annum.

Call me unhelpful but in a country that the First Minister describes as “progressive”, the concept of a bonded learner is somewhat incongruous. Predictably, despite its crusade against the “something-for-nothing” culture, the party of Janus Lamont criticised the bursary cuts. I find it odd that the Labour harridan demands 600,000 Scots who earn less than £16,000 pay prescription charges but shrieks when those with a household income of £25,000 have a student hand-out reduced.

Mr Russell stated that the SNP’s assistance to undergraduates was “the UK’s best student support package”. Taking pride in being the least worst is a tad unedifying, akin to EasyJet sneering at Ryanair and Wizz. That the National Union of Students backs the minister’s changes indicates just how bankrupt education is in other parts of Britain.

Of course, for the parents of many students, the scything of bursary award levels is academic. A household with an income of more than £34,000 – not exactly fat cat status – cannot apply for any state funding. What sticks in the craw of these people is the fact that there is huge anecdotal evidence that many prosperous mums and dads, usually self-employed it has to be said, feverishly stir their creative juices when it comes to filling in bursary application forms. In their eyes, fully funding one’s child through tertiary education is only for the PAYE little people.

Truth be told, they would not dare to dissemble if the Student Awards Agency scrutinised claims assiduously; in terms of detecting fraud, the legal aid body that granted multi-millionaire Asil Nadir an estimated £5 million to fight his court case appears to have a more robust system. It escapes me why, unlike moonlighting unemployed scroungers, these white-collar benefit cheats are never the subject of media disapprobation or government crackdowns.

It is likely that the bonfire of the bursaries will result in fewer youngsters opting to undertake a university education. Those who do will probably feel a need to find an institution near to home, which could mean that the student is unable to study his first-choice course. Further, the bursary belt-tightening policy makes it more unlikely that the government’s laudable strategy of widening access to our prestigious universities will be successful.

One winner will be the hospitality industry, which will witness a surge in demand for part-time work.

In my view, the SNP government’s decision to switch to a largely loan-based method of funding a university education is a retrograde

step.

But with opposition parties eager to reintroduce tuition fees or bring in a graduate tax, payback at the ballot box for the Nationalists is improbable.

 

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