Leader comment: Student debt underlines attainment gap

Falling student bursaries and rising student debt are a block to further education for those from poorer backgrounds. Picture: John Devlin
Falling student bursaries and rising student debt are a block to further education for those from poorer backgrounds. Picture: John Devlin
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The Scottish Government’s response to new figures on student funding and debt was telling. With the number of students receiving bursaries and grants falling from 69,960 in 2009/10 to 49,815, and debt per year going up from £185.8 million in 2006/07 to £486.3m in 2015/16, there was no attempt to defend the figures.

Instead, we were told that the government is “committed to reviewing student support to make sure the system is fair and effective”.

That review is essential, because the current system is neither fair nor effective, in terms of the government’s objectives in education.

It is well documented that there is an attainment gap in Scottish education, with children from poorer backgrounds being at a marked disadvantage to those from better-off families. Deputy First Minister John Swinney has been asked to take on the task of closing the gap, but his toil will be in vain if the student bursaries and debts continue to undermine whatever academic progress can be made over the next few years.

Attainment in examinations is not the only barrier to advancement in education, and unless the funding of further education allows those from poorer backgrounds to consider pursuing a university or college place, we will be no further forward. Closing the gap at school level will be pointless if further education remains the privilege of those who can afford it, because the financial burden of embarking on three years or more of study beyond school will be too much for too many school leavers to contemplate.

Until further education is made more inclusive – a word which is very much part of the Scottish Government’s current agenda – the attainment gap can only be delayed.