BURSARIES available to thousands of poor and middle-income students are to be cut next year, forcing them to rely on higher loans for their day-to-day living costs.
For students from the country’s poorest homes, bursaries will be reduced by nearly £1,000 from next April as the Scottish Government reduces the overall budget for undergraduate support.
Figures show that for students from homes with an income of about £25,000, the cash grant which helps them with living costs while they are at university is to be cut even further, from £1,800 this year to just £500 next year.
The drop in bursary payments is to be balanced out by a rise in the amount of loan available, with each student able to take out at least £4,500 a year from next year.
The reforms were unveiled last month by education secretary Michael Russell, who said they offered students “enhanced support”. He added that, combined with free tuition in Scotland, they amounted to the “UK’s best student support package”.
However, details of the bursary cut were not mentioned in a Scottish Government press release publicising the reforms.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson yesterday challenged First Minister Alex Salmond over the cuts in a bad-tempered question time session at Holyrood, accusing him of being “clueless about the havoc” being wreaked by Mr Russell.
But Mr Salmond hit back, accusing the Conservative-led UK coalition of “scything” his own budget and causing cutbacks across Scotland.
And Mr Russell was backed by NUS Scotland which said that, despite the cut in bursaries, the large rise in the loan amount would help students get more “cash in their pocket”, giving them confidence to continue their studies.
The drop in overall support was shown last month in Scottish Government documents that revealed a fall from £325 million this year to £302m next year.
Figures published by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland, which distributes the bursaries to students across the country, now show exactly how much less students can claim.
Until now, students have had their grant assessed on a pound-for-pound basis. This year, a young student with a family income of £19,310 or less can claim a bursary of £2,640. Under the new system, however, the low income band has been dropped to £16,999 and the bursary itself has been reduced to £1,750.
The cuts also apply further up the income scale. For students from homes with an income of £22,000, this year’s bursary amounts to £2,163. Next year, it will be just £1,000. And while a student with a home income of £25,000 is currently able to claim £1,631, next year the figure will fall to £500.
Students from homes with an income of more than £34,000 cannot apply for a bursary.
However, the fall in grants is to be matched by a marked increase in the loans that students can take, with all students now able to take out up to £4,500, no matter their family income.
The reforms were publicised by Mr Russell as a way of meeting calls by NUS Scotland to ensure there was “more cash in students pockets” and to encourage students continued with their education rather than be put off by concerns over money.
He said the plans would ensure students from low-income households could be assured they would have a “minimum income of £7,250” and estimated this would impact on some 45,000 students in this income bracket.
However, the press release at the time made no mention of the changes in the balance between loans and bursaries, nor that the lion’s share of the income would have to be met through a loan.
Raising the matter yesterday, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the cut for the poorest group of students, equivalent to 34 per cent, was “shameful”. She added: “This further exposes the myth of free education, with the most needy in Scotland being among the hardest hit by the SNP. The Scottish Government has made this cut for student bursaries by stealth, showing how sleekit this administration has become when handling bad news.”
However, responding to Ms Davidson in the chamber yesterday, Mr Salmond said: “At some stage, the Conservative Party will have to get over this contradiction between constantly calling for additional expenditure on things that they want additional expenditure on while their government at Westminster is scything the Scottish budget.
“The comparison, of course, is how we’ve managed to maintain public services in comparison to what is happening in England and indeed in Wales.”
Ministers say they announced the plans after getting the support of NUS Scotland. The group last night said it backed the cut in bursaries, saying the parallel increase in the loan pot available to students made up the difference.
Its president, Robin Parker, said: “The new changes represent a huge investment of additional money into Scottish students’ pockets.
“While there has been a cut in the bursaries, overall there’s an increase of around £150m per year in the amount of financial help students will get – up by almost £1,000 in total for the poorest students. Under these proposals, every student will have more money in their pocket, to pay the bills that vitally keep them in education”
The NUS added that surveys had shown 79 per cent of students were more concerned about having money in their pocket now, as against 21 per cent who said they were more concerned with reducing their student loan once they graduated.
Under the new scheme, loans of up to £5,500 a year will be available. It means a graduate doing a four-year degree could end up with a student loan of £22,000 by the time they leave university.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it was “delivering the best student support package available anywhere in the UK”, adding: “All students will have more money in their pockets, and from next year we will ensure that the most vulnerable benefit from a minimum income of at least £7,250.”