Ian Murray MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, compares the SNP’s stance on student finances in the Commons to their record in the Scottish Government, and finds staggering hypocrisy.
Today, SNP MPs got up in the House of Commons to rail against the Conservative government’s decision to replace student maintenance grants with loans. They’re right to be outraged: replacing maintenance grants with loans deliberately and cynically targets students from lower income backgrounds and exposes Tory rhetoric on “One Nation” aspiration and social mobility for what it is: empty.
There was just one small problem with the SNP ire: what the Tories are doing now is uncannily similar to what the SNP government has been quietly doing in Scotland.
Because of the apparent lack of interest in whether what they say is actually true, Alison Thewliss, the SNP spokesperson for cities, was able to get away with claiming last week that “in Scotland we have made the positive decision not to introduce loans so that education in Scotland is free, people in the poorest areas of society can reach university and the poorest students do not get into astronomical debt.”
In fact, almost the exact opposite is true.
Although Scottish students do not pay tuition fees – a policy Scottish Labour supports – no fees does not equal no loans and no debt. Loans very much do exist in Scotland and it is the poorest students who end up owing most. The only people that truly get free education are the affluent, as they are the only ones from backgrounds wealthy enough not to have to borrow money to support themselves while at university. Contrary to what the SNP claim, efforts to democratise university access in Scotland are failing: Scotland has the lowest percentage of university entrants from the poorest backgrounds and the lowest proportion of entrants from state schools in the UK.
When they were elected to government in 2007, the SNP promised to replace loans with grants and pay off student debt. Instead, they have been doing the opposite: they have increased debt and forced poorer students to take out ever-increasing loans. Their policies have resulted in students from lower-income backgrounds leaving university with an average debt of £26,600.
The process began in earnest in 2013. As analysis from Lucy Hunter Blackburn, former Head of Higher Education in the Scottish Government and an expert on student finance has highlighted, total spending on grant for low-income students was cut in Scotland in 2013-14 by 40%. This meant some students lost over £1,600 a year. What’s more, and contrary to the interest in – and widespread condemnation of – the UK Government’s actions, the SNP tried and succeeded in sneaking their changes in by the back door. There was almost no media coverage, and the Scottish Government did not even bother to properly inform those students affected. This really was government by stealth and subterfuge: the SNP managed to pass off higher loans and higher debts as fair and equitable. Being even more underhand than the Tories: that’s quite a feat.
When it comes to education the SNP really have managed to look both ways. They have presented themselves as progressives whilst consistently acting regressively. In higher education, they have cut grants and bursaries, hitting poorest students hardest. In further education, they have eviscerated college budgets – reduced by over £50 million – and presided over a 152,000 decline in student numbers. They have slashed local education budgets and, under them, the gap in educational attainment between pupils from more and less prosperous backgrounds has widened. Their actions, and the surreptitious manner in which they have been executed, have been wrong and unfair.
It is time that someone shone a light on the SNP’s actions in government and exposed their progressive rhetoric for what it is: empty.