Brian Wilson: SNP’s Debt Monster is biting back

Students from lower-income families pay a proportionately higher price for 'free' education. Picture: Jane Barlow
Students from lower-income families pay a proportionately higher price for 'free' education. Picture: Jane Barlow
Share this article
Have your say

As with student loans, the Nationalists’ promises over childcare threaten to come to nothing, writes Brian Wilson

It is 15 months since Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont made a common sense speech about the conflict between universal “free” schemes and the priority of addressing inequalities within Scottish society.

Essentially, she suggested, the Scottish Government was running a wide range of hand-outs to the better off that bring no benefit to those who would be paying little or nothing for them anyway. At the same time, this was leading to cuts in the services on which people with lower incomes are disproportionately dependent.

It was scarcely political rocket science and, indeed, echoed almost precisely what a commission, chaired by the late Campbell Christie, had already told the Scottish Government. Nonetheless, it was greeted with near hysteria by the Nationalists and their faithful communicators, who pronounced the death of socialist egalitarianism, for which Lamont would be punished by an outraged electorate.

Nothing in the past 15 months has suggested that she was wrong or that the electorate is oblivious to the truth of what she said. If you freeze council tax, which 30 per cent of households didn’t pay anyway, it self-evidently does not benefit that 30 per cent. But if councils have to close nurseries or leave teaching posts empty as a result, then disadvantaged people end up paying for the savings of the better-off.

Last week, there was a stark reminder that politics is about choices, when it emerged that the number of teachers in Scotland is down by more than 4,000 since the SNP came to power, while the average class sizes it promised to cut have increased. What was supposed to go up has come down and what was supposed to come down has gone up. You can’t get much more bang-to-rights than that.

We do not know the demographic break-down of where teachers have been shed or class sizes increased, but it seems likely that they will come disproportionately from those areas of need where recruitment and retention are most difficult. Add to that the increasingly shambolic market in supply teachers and we can reasonably conclude that another dose of disadvantage has been heaped upon those who are most in need of improved educational standards.

In this respect, as in others, the Nationalists had a choice. They could have stuck to their manifesto commitment at the expense of something else. Or they could make silent cuts and hope nobody noticed while continuing to spend a large proportion of their budget on those “universal” schemes to which both Christie and Lamont drew critical attention, not to mention the bottomless pit now devoted to referendum propaganda.

Whatever one thinks the answer should have been, the indisputable point is that choices do exist – and that the answers depend, not on the absolute availability of resources, but on the priorities applied to them. The proof being in the pudding, it is inescapable that the lesser priority for the SNP was to meet its own commitment on class sizes.

Such broken promises take on a new level of significance in the current climate. Having concluded that the market for independence is not going to rise above a third on the basis of the case so far presented, a new set of goalposts has been erected on the field of “social justice”. At the white paper launch, childcare got more mentions than such inconvenient matters as the currency or European Union membership.

Asking questions about jobs, savings and pensions is to miss the point, we were advised in lofty tones by the panjandrums of separation. It was really all about childcare. Only when unshackled by independence, according to the revised script, can we revolutionise pre-school provision and release the energies of Scotland’s young mothers (a particularly challenging sector for the Nationalists in the focus groups, as it happens).

This was not a terribly convincing line of attack, since anyone with half a brain knows they don’t need to break up Britain in order to build more nurseries. The powers and money already exist, if that is their priority – which clearly it hasn’t been. Now we can add the fact that the number of pre-school teachers in Scotland has fallen by several hundred since the SNP took over at Holyrood. Some revolution!

Higher and further education is another key battleground in the conflict between “universal” free things and the competing philosophy of concentrating resources where need is greatest. Last week’s news of the big broken promise on class sizes caused me to recall the SNP’s other highly influential educational commitment prior to the 2007 Scottish election, which was on the subject of student debt.

The Nationalists shamelessly promised to write off student debt and replace loans with grants. Nicola Sturgeon denounced those who challenged the absurd under-costing of this pledge as “unconcerned about the burgeoning problem of student debt” Alex Salmond described civil servants who did the costings as “lickspittles”. The SNP campaigned among students under the slogan “Time to Dump the Debt Monster”.

So what has actually transpired? The wild promises were, of course, dumped in John Swinney’s first budget and disappeared into cuttings files of those with slightly longer-than-average memories. Since then, the Nationalists have relentlessly cut back on grants, while increasing the levels of student debt. The purpose of this was to fund the headline commitment to “no tuition fees” (unless you are English).

All this was brilliantly analysed recently in a paper by Lucy Hunter, former head of student finance with the Scottish Government. “Scotland,” she wrote, “now stands alone in its diminishing use of student grant … Scotland is the only jurisdiction where the system is predicated on graduates from lower-income backgrounds facing the highest debt of any group … Exceptionally within the UK, Scottish graduates from lower-income backgrounds will face a larger tax (in all but name) on their future earnings than those who started out from better-off homes”.

So the Debt Monster is alive, well and draped in tartan. The poorer you are, the more ferocious it becomes. Students who would not pay tuition fees bear the brunt of the Scottish Government’s calculated movement away from grants to loans as the basis of student finance. Access to our universities has not widened by a millimetre. In this respect, England (with fees) has done better and Wales (with fees) much better.

As a centre-right policy, subsidising the middle-class to the disadvantage of low income households is standard fare. That’s fine – so long as nobody is gullible enough to confuse it with social justice while recognising that promises on childcare are now worth precisely as much as those (still available in black and white) on class sizes and student debt – ie precisely nothing.