Richard Leonard: SNP ditched the promise, not the student debt

Students in Scotland have to start repaying student loans earlier than counterparts in England and Wales. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Students in Scotland have to start repaying student loans earlier than counterparts in England and Wales. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
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Over the next few weeks, many of our young people will be starting or returning to university. I first became a student at Stirling University almost forty years ago, drawn by the innovative teaching and assessment methods, which the university pioneered under leaders like Lionel Robbins and Ken Alexander. I graduated and chose to make Scotland my home.

Student finance was simple back then. Everybody received free tuition and many also benefited from a grant. I had a full grant and consequently I left university with no debts: in stark contrast to students today.

Famously the SNP entered government in 2007 on the very alluring promise to students that it would “dump the debt”. They promised to service the existing loan debt for Scottish graduates “by meeting their annual loan repayments, reintroducing grants instead of loans and scrapping the graduate endowment fee”. So it may come as a surprise to some that twelve years later student debt in Scotland is rapidly rising, despite the SNP’s policy of free tuition.

In fact, the First Minister said in 2006, “We will tackle the problem of rising student debt… Student debt prices too many people from low-income backgrounds out of education and restricts the choices of those students who are lucky enough to get a degree. One does not have to stop and think for very long to realise that a graduate with £11,000 of debt will find it much harder than one without such a debt to buy a home, start a business or save for their retirement. Student debt is unsustainable and it is bad economics. An SNP Government will restore…free education.”

The SNP in office has stoked up the myth that study at higher education in Scotland, without tuition fees, is ‘debt free’. But the facts fly in the face of the myth. When Labour left office, the average individual loan balance for higher education graduates, when they reached the point at which their loan repayments were due to start, was £6,080, a figure which has rocketed to £13,800 in 2019 under the SNP. So the SNP slogan should have read not “dump the debt” but double the debt!

If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that politics can be as much about what you do not do, as it is about what you do.

Principles can be found wanting by inaction, just as they can shine forth in action.

Morals can be illuminated by the choice of who you do not help, just as much as by those you do.

This fact – as much a fact of politics as it is of everyday life – has been proved time and again, and it is the litmus test on which the SNP’s track record should be scrutinised.

But the SNP has shown itself is too timid to take the necessary action. So let us start with something straightforward and logical – something, in fact, so simple, that people will be scratching their heads wondering why it hasn’t been done already.

It relates to student loan repayments.

In England and Wales, you now begin repaying your student loan when you start earning £25,725 a year or more. That means that for many graduates, they simply do not begin repaying their loan until they are on their second or perhaps third job and beginning to earn a fair wage.

By contrast, in Scotland, a student in exactly the same circumstances must start paying back that money at a significantly lower threshold - £18,935.

That means, effectively, Scottish students are being financially penalised in a disproportionate way compared to their English and Welsh counterparts.

So under the SNP, Scottish students have less disposable income at a time not only when the economy could do with a boost in consumer spending, but when the cost of living is skyrocketing too.

Indeed, for too many young people, life after university is a struggle to get by. The dream of home ownership is exactly that for most young people, who face inflated property prices coupled with miniscule wage growth. Saving for a house deposit is now a lifelong pursuit.

Meanwhile, private rents are continuing to rise and unscrupulous landlords are exploiting tenants – particularly young tenants – with arbitrary evictions and unreasonable demands.

Struggling to pay rent, with no end in sight but the possibility of eviction, is not the way we should allow our graduates or any young person to be treated as their introduction into the world of work.

Of course, raising the income threshold won’t immediately solve all of these problems. If the SNP supported Labour’s plan for introducing a Mary Barbour Law, which will seek to cap annual rent increases, this would provide tenants with greater power when challenging unfair rents or submitting rent reduction claims.

It would also enable us to gather the information on private rents that we really need to understand the sector.

And the SNP should also support fair pay, given that new research shows the number of people not earning the living wage in Scotland has risen by 30,000 over the last year.

That means that there are now almost half a million working people in Scotland who are not being paid enough to live. As a result, in-work poverty is one of the great scandals of our time.

But raising the repayment threshold for student loans would, nevertheless, be a positive and straightforward act which would deliver much needed extra cash to our graduates. It is in the gift of the SNP to make that change now, not in a few years time as they are proposing. One immediate effect would be to make graduates better off, boosting spending in the economy.

Indeed, this is the SNP’s chance to show even just a modicum of courage. And to show a long overdue acknowledgement that they owe Scottish students an apology.

After all, it is twelve years on from when they promised to write off all student debt but then ditched the promise, rather than the debt.