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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 20 March 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Student Support, Free Bus Travel (Under-25s), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Inflammatory Bowel Disease


Contents


Student Support

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-16407, in the name of Iain Gray, on student support. I ask members who wish to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons.

14:42  

Scotland’s students have been poorly served by 12 years of Scottish National Party Government. It is true that successive SNP Governments have maintained free tuition in our universities—let us not forget that that was introduced by the Labour-led Administration back in 2001—which means that we are happy to support the Government’s amendment this evening.

It is also true that the SNP Government abolished the graduate endowment, which was a one-off payment on graduation that was paid only by the better-off 50 per cent of graduates. Of course, the endowment did not pay for tuition but rather for grants and bursaries for the next cohort of students from low-income families. Sure enough, having ended that payment from better-off graduates, as night follows day, the SNP Government in 2013 duly slashed grants and bursaries that went to poorer students; £35 million was removed from students’ pockets and their grants were cut by 33 per cent, which was lower by as much as £900 a year for some.

That would be bad enough, but what made it worse was the biggest trick played on students: the dirty, dishonest “dump the debt” con of 2007. When it was elected, the SNP did not tell us that it would cut student grants. In fact, it actually promised to give all students all living support as grants; it would abolish student loans and even pay off outstanding student debt. Its manifesto said:

“An SNP government will ... replace the expensive and discredited Student Loans system with means-tested student grants. We will remove the burden of debt repayments owed by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates.”

Instead, 12 years on, it has supersized the student loans system, which is now worth almost £5 billion, and graduates come out with twice the debt that students had when the SNP told that whopper. The poorest students, stripped of their grants and without family to lean on, are coming out with the biggest debts of all. They have even been let down on the smallest of promises, which was of a higher threshold for the repayment of loans—not much help, but some. In England the threshold is already £25,000. SNP ministers have been promising that for years now, but they just cannot get it done.

It is worse for students in further education, with a postcode lottery of bursaries varying from college to college, while year after year, colleges have been left without the resources to pay those bursaries and are having to plead for in-year budget adjustments just to keep their students afloat.

If I could just interrupt Iain Gray’s doom and gloom with a quick intervention, does he at least acknowledge that the SNP Government and this Parliament are giving the best support package for students anywhere in the United Kingdom? Does he also acknowledge that our graduates leave with less debt by far compared with the debt that is inherited by graduates from elsewhere in the UK?

In terms of living support, that is simply not true—I will come to that in a moment.

I acknowledge that, when the Government announced an independent review of student support, it looked as though it really was time and the Government was going to do something to make up for it all. That was a serious review, with a serious chair in Jayne-Anne Gadhia, and it made some serious recommendations. It promised a new social contract for students, access to a guaranteed income based on the real living wage and parity for students in further and higher education.

Labour members welcomed the review. We wanted it to go further. It was not perfect, it did not do nearly enough for our taste to rebalance grants and loans and it had nothing at all for part-time students. However, it was a start towards a fairer student support system, with equity for all, at its heart. Above all, the review recognised the thing that ministers have never really got their heads round: free tuition might remove one of the barriers to university, but it is not in and of itself enough. For many, and perhaps more, young people, their worry about having enough to live on is what holds them back.

That is why the ludicrous 16-month delay in doing anything about the review that ministers themselves commissioned is inexcusable. It took seven months for the then minister to respond at all, last June. She acted on bursaries for care-experienced students, which was great. However, for everyone else it was all so difficult. The minister was speaking to the Department for Work and Pensions about how FE support would work with benefits. She promised a review for part-time students by the end of last year. She was talking to the Student Loans Company about raising the repayment threshold.

Here we are, another nine months on. There have been two new HE-FE ministers since then—albeit one of them very briefly—the living wage has gone up twice, a whole new cohort of students are now close to finishing their first year of study, and none of those promises has materialised.

This is the Government that said it could create a new independent nation in 18 months, but it cannot even raise the repayment threshold for graduates in that time. Our students still have less to live on than students in England or Wales, albeit, of course, that tuition is not free in those jurisdictions—that is why we cannot support the Conservative amendment.

Our motion asks only that the Government implement its own review—a modest demand indeed. Let us be clear, however: it demands some urgency. If the motion is agreed to this evening, we want the minister back here with a plan for reform in the next few weeks, and we want students to benefit in the next academic year, starting in August and September, not at some vague time far off in the future. Surely that is not too much to ask.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that financial support is vital to enabling students to complete their courses; acknowledges that there needs to be more parity in the support that is available to students in colleges and universities; believes therefore that students in both further and higher education should be entitled to a minimum student Income, tied to the Scottish Government’s living wage, as recommended by the independent review of student support, and calls on the Scottish Government to urgently bring forward its timetabled plan to implement this.

14:49  

I thank the Labour Party for bringing the motion to Parliament, which gives the Government a good opportunity to outline our impressive support for Scotland’s students. Our colleges and universities play a vital role in delivering the skills, the people and the innovation that are required to support our economy, and our students are of course central to that objective.

Since 2007, the Government has sought to maintain our world-class reputation in tertiary education by investing £7 billion in colleges and—in recent years—more than £1 billion per year in universities and by introducing free tuition, which has not been introduced in other parts of the United Kingdom. We have delivered significant and lasting reform across the college sector to drive forward a regional approach to skills and education in local authorities. As we are debating today, we have begun implementation of a minimum income guarantee for students; we will focus initially on society’s most vulnerable students by introducing a bursary for care-experienced students.

We have made a firm commitment to those who want to study at college or university in Scotland that access must be based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay. We restored free education for first-time undergraduates, which helped more than 120,000 students who study in Scotland each and every year. Those students could face debt of up to £27,000 in tuition fees if they were studying elsewhere in the UK. We will not introduce up-front or back-door tuition fees in this Parliament, or ever.

In further and higher education, we are seeing record levels of student support. More full-time higher education students than ever are receiving support; there were a total of 147,920 in 2017-18, which is up 3.1 per cent from the previous year. Meanwhile, the further education budget for this academic year is at the record level of more than £111 million in college bursaries, childcare and discretionary funds—that is a real-terms increase of 33 per cent since this Government took office.

The figures are quite clear. The young student bursary is currently £2,000. In 2012, it was £2,640. The Government has cut what students have got to live on.

I am coming to the fact that the bursaries offered in our colleges and universities are the best anywhere in the UK. [Interruption.] An FE student can receive a non-repayable bursary of up to £98.79 per week, which is the best level anywhere in the UK, including Labour-run Wales. Therefore, rather than rest on our laurels, we commissioned an independent review of student support—as referred to by Iain Gray—to see what more could be done to build a fairer future for all.

I want Scotland’s student support system to be focused on the most vulnerable students, thereby complementing the Government’s wider ambitions to reduce child poverty and widen access to university. We welcome the report’s central premise of creating a student support system around the key values of fairness, parity and clarity. We support the ambition that was outlined in the review to achieve a minimum income for our students and we will support the Labour motion today. After all, it was this Government—back in 2013-14—that first introduced the concept of a minimum income guarantee for higher education students, meaning that, at that time, students who were most in need could access a guaranteed income.

The review did not have an ambition of a minimum income guarantee; it had a recommendation. Will the minister agree to implement it?

Of course, it is our ambition to implement that guarantee; that is the purpose of what we are saying here today. [Interruption.] That is why we are supporting Labour’s motion. Labour members should welcome that fact, not oppose the fact that we are supporting the motion.

We have already begun to implement the review’s income guarantee by investing more than £5 million to increase the bursary for care-experienced students to £8,100 per year. The further education care-experienced student bursary increased from £4,185 to £8,100 per year and the higher education bursary increased from £7,625 to £8,100 per year. That is excellent progress. That was an important step in recognising the needs of that group of students and supporting them to enter further or higher education.

We also committed to a further £21 million per year towards the support; that will be phased in. In order to support access to bursaries to students from low-income families, we will raise the higher education bursary income threshold from £19,000 to £21,000. We will increase bursary support for low-income young students in higher education from £1,875 to £2,000 per year, which, combined with raising the higher education bursary threshold, will benefit 13,500 students in Scotland. Further to that, we will increase bursary support for the most-in-need independent students in higher education from £875 to £1,000 per year, which will benefit nearly 18,000 students in Scotland. Those combined improvements will result in around 31,000 higher education students benefiting from an improved package of support.

For students in further education, we will increase bursary support so that in 2019-20 students can receive a bursary of up to £4,500 per year, which will benefit more than 7,000 students.

Those are examples of how this Government is delivering unprecedented support to Scotland’s students, especially those who are in most need—those in our disadvantaged communities. We should be proud of the record that this Parliament and the SNP Government have delivered.

I move amendment S5M-16407.4, to insert at end:

“, and further believes that access to higher education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay, and will not introduce upfront or backdoor tuition fees.”

14:55  

I thank Labour for bringing the debate to Parliament for two reasons. The first is that the availability of student support is as important a factor in any student’s decision about whether to attend college or university as any other. Although we do not agree entirely with the Labour position, Mr Gray has been asking very pertinent questions of the Scottish National Party Government about its ambitions for the policy.

The second reason why I am pleased that we are having the debate is the fast-changing context in which we should be debating further and higher education generally, which includes the increasing number of students who wish to access further and higher education, the widening access agenda, the increase in articulation and the overall funding structures, including for the funding of student support, all of which are hugely important to the future success and sustainability of both sectors. In addition, we will shortly be able to see the results of international comparative studies, which will set out the challenges that Scotland faces in that respect.

Notwithstanding that, we can all agree with many of the recommendations that were set out in the independent review, including the principle of a minimum income level and the concept that there should be more parity across the board for different categories of students, whether they are at college or university. That is very welcome. Part-time students and students with disabilities, for example, have often felt left out of the debate. That is a major concern if we are trying to take on some of the suggestions that have come from those quarters. It is important to ensure that our workforce is more flexible so that it can adapt to the changing needs of the economy. That was strongly highlighted by Susan Stewart at the Open University and Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland, so those aspirations are extremely welcome.

With that context in mind, there is a bigger picture that we need to examine. Professor Sir Ian Diamond was very clear about that when he called for reform in Wales, where the central proposal was to look at the student package overall rather than to identify the funding of living costs as an issue on its own. I agree to a large extent with Sir Ian’s approach, and there are some other interesting examples from around the world—New Zealand being one—in which policy is similarly set in the context of overall support rather than in the context of a rigid divide, whereby student support is dealt with separately from paying for tuition.

It is important to say that the Scottish Conservatives have always believed that the Scottish system must be distinct and that it is not in any way appropriate to implant another system in Scotland just because it has been successful elsewhere. However, we should be examining the policy proposals in other countries and their respective costs much more closely. Because the issue is complex and no system in the UK has got things right—some of the claims that the minister made about bursary support are from a different planet—we must look at the whole perspective.

Given the experience elsewhere, there is surely a strong case for reform of student loans. That was highlighted in the independent report and in several other reports on the funding of tertiary education. We would do well to be concerned about what Lucy Hunter Blackburn has been saying about the balance between bursaries and loans, which was also mentioned by Iain Gray. Grants are now so low that people from the lowest-income families will be taking on some of the highest debt, which is a major concern.

I will finish by dealing with the SNP amendment. Whatever SNP members like to say, university education in Scotland is not wholly based on the ability to learn, rather than the ability to pay. Hundreds of well-qualified Scotland-domiciled pupils in schools are being squeezed out of the university system and will tell us exactly that. The SNP Government knows jolly well that the current system is both discriminatory and financially unviable in the longer run. It also knows that the up-front or back-door fee situation that is described in its amendment is not the position of the Scottish Conservatives.

I move amendment S5M-16407.1, to leave out from “believes therefore” to end and insert:

“welcomes the independent review on student support, and calls on the Scottish Government to work with stakeholders and the Parliament to fully explore all the options, including those recommendations made in other jurisdictions.”

14:59  

I am grateful to Iain Gray and the Labour Party for lodging the motion for debate in the chamber.

We seem to go through phases in debating education policy. Further and higher education were very much the focus in the previous parliamentary session. However, since 2016, the focus has moved towards our schools and early years policies, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Even at that, since the most recent election, remarkably little chamber time has been given to the important issues in education that we are talking about. It is therefore to Labour’s credit that it has put the issue of student support back on the table today.

For centuries now, the ethos that has underpinned Scotland’s education system is universalism: that education is, and should be, for everyone. We came to that conclusion way before many others, but it has still taken us a long time to come even close to making it a reality, and there is still some way to go.

If someone decides to go to college or university in Scotland, they should do so in the knowledge that the financial support that they need will be there. However, we know that that is not yet the reality for far too many people. Free tuition—which enjoys broad support in the chamber—goes only so far, as has already been pointed out. To make Scottish education genuinely accessible, we need to get a grip not just on the support package that we can offer, but on living costs for students and what is driving them up in the first place.

Right now, there is a clear inequality in our further and higher education systems. Students from wealthy backgrounds do not need to take on paid work to cover their living costs, although many do so to supplement their incomes. That means that, if they choose to do so, they can devote greater time and energy to their studies: they can put in the hours that they need to put in to do well.

Students who do not come from privileged backgrounds and who do not have the financial support of their families face a tougher time. For too many, part-time or even full-time work is not something that they take on to supplement their income; it is a necessity, without which they just cannot cover the costs of staying in education. That, in turn, squeezes out the time that they would otherwise commit to making the most of their courses and of the wider experience of being at college or university.

The problem is not just the time that students spend at work. They are more likely to be working in bars, shops or supermarkets, or as cycle couriers, which is hard, often deeply exploitative and low paid. When someone is exhausted at the end of a long bar shift or after hours of cycling across a city, going to the library for a few more hours of studying is just not realistic for them.

Loans for living costs are available. They may cover living costs at the time—although I know from friends that, right now, for many, they are not doing so—but they also mean taking on debt that takes years to pay off. Such students’ future take-home pay will be lower because of loan repayments than that of students who were lucky enough to have wealthy parents who could fund their education. We can all agree that that is just not fair. We might have different solutions, but we can agree on many of the principles—although that might not have been evident from some of the opening exchanges.

We know that the burden of debt and the financial cost that is associated with higher education also act as a barrier for those from lower-income backgrounds. We might not have gone down the route that has been gone down in England, where students are charged extortionate fees of more than £9,000 per year and maintenance grants have been axed, but we cannot be complacent. The disparity between student support at universities and student support at colleges is an acute inequality that has been acknowledged by the student support review. The review could not even use a clear and concise figure for student support at colleges, because no national set entitlement exists.

A college student’s cost of living is not cheaper than a university student’s. Here in Scotland, where colleges play a greater role in delivering higher education, we need to ensure that students are entitled to similar levels of support. Ensuring that students have proper maintenance grants that afford them a decent standard of living is an important goal, but it is only one part of the solution.

We need to get to grips with the cost of living for everyone. Increases in private rent and the cost of public transport are putting intense pressure on students. We need public ownership of housing and transportation to ensure that they are available as a public good. Making public transport fare free—a Green policy that is partially addressed in Labour’s other motion today—would remove a major barrier to education for some students. A minimum student income and tuition-fee-free university, alongside policies such as the one that I have just mentioned, are what we need to deliver inclusive college and university education.

Greens will be more than happy to support the Labour motion and the Government amendment. We all agree on much more than we have been letting on so far in the debate.

15:03  

I, too, thank Iain Gray and the Labour Party for lodging the motion, which Liberal Democrats will support, along with the Government amendment.

I will make two observations on the minister’s opening remarks. When ministers talk about student support, it is important that they mention loans and the balance between those and bursaries—that argument will undoubtedly be rehearsed during the debate—because that balance has surely changed. The position has become more difficult for students from all backgrounds and, as Mr Gray rightly said in his opening remarks, that is particularly the case for those from the most deprived backgrounds. That is of significant concern. I am sure that it is of concern to the Government, but it will need to recognise that in how it addresses the debate.

Secondly, Richard Lochhead helpfully clarified that the Government will support the Labour Party’s motion, which means that it will be agreed to. That means that, as Iain Gray said, there is an onus on the Government—Richard Lochhead can do this when he winds up the debate—to say when it will produce its plan. If it cannot give a timetable today, I suspect that Parliament and, more to the point, student bodies would be very grateful if it could set that out at some stage in the coming weeks so that students and parents can understand whether a new arrangement will be in place for the start of the new academic year in August and September.

I have a number of observations to make about the balance between bursaries and loans, which other speakers have highlighted. For me, it is at the core of the issue. The poorest students continue to take on the highest loans in Scotland, at £5,780 per year for the lowest household income bracket, compared with £4,940 for the highest. For a student doing a standard four-year Scottish degree, the total would be £23,120 of debt.

Bursaries spending was £105 million in 2008-09. It is now £76.3 million, which represents a decrease of 27 per cent. The consequences of that are very clear. The value of loans was £187 million in 2008-09. It is now £528 million, which represents an increase of 183 per cent. The average student took out £2,420 in 2008-09; the figure is now £5,290. It is reasonable to ask the Government, as the purpose of the review set out, to reflect on why that balance has changed. Also, when the word “support” is used, it would be more accurate to say that “loans” or, rather, “debts” have greatly increased for Scottish students over the past 12 years. That is according to the Government’s figures. They are not figures that any others of us have come up with; we are talking about the Government’s own figures.

The report of the independent review is an important contribution, not least because, as Iain Gray and Liz Smith rightly said, it addresses the distinction between higher education and vocational educational and training and the need to find a better way to deal with that. We have talked for many a year about parity of esteem. Here is a review that actually provides some concrete examples of how to deal with that.

This is about the Government finding a constructive way to tackle the increase in student borrowing and recognising the part of recommendation 19 by the commission on widening access that says that there is a need to look at

“the balance between loan and bursary impacts upon access, retention and choice of institution.”

The Government has not addressed that yet, and the review did not address it, either.

I hope that those matters will be taken forward. When Richard Lochhead winds up this short debate on behalf of the Government, he will have a chance to tackle all those issues and to set out exactly when the Government will produce its plan.

We move to the open debate. I ask for speeches of a tight four minutes.

15:07  

It is a matter of regret that students in further and higher education have been let down by the SNP with the lack of financial support being provided while they are at college or university. Free tuition is one part of the equation, but living costs are the other. Despite pledges by the SNP to scrap student debt completely in 2007, the debt is skyrocketing. Student debt is up by 169 per cent. The day-to-day cost of living and the lack of financial support from the Government are seeing the poorest students being forced to take on multiple low-wage part-time jobs, which has a negative impact on their grades and their wellbeing.

I acknowledge that free tuition opened doors for students who previously thought that they could not afford to attend university, but for many, loans instead of bursaries are simply unsustainable and are storing up huge debt for the future. The reduction of the young students bursary in 2013 meant that the SNP claim of supporting the poorest students in Scotland did not just sound rather hollow but was downright dishonest, and although I appreciate that the bursary might have been raised for 2019, it is well short of the 2013 level. The Government cannot expect to be congratulated for putting a little back after taking a lot away in the first place.

Let me try to be fair and acknowledge the helpful steps that the Scottish Government has taken. First, commissioning an independent review of student support was the right thing to do. Secondly, committing to increasing the bursary for care-experienced young people was the right thing to do. Thirdly, raising the threshold at which repayment of loans starts is the right thing to do, although I confess that I find it hard to believe that the UK Government is moving more quickly than the Scottish Government on that.

However, it is so disappointing that there has been little progress on the other recommendations, such as the real living wage for students and parity between further and higher education. There was no real understanding shown in the minister’s response of the need to do something pretty urgently. We need practical implementation, not some kind of vague ambition that simply kicks the can down the road.

A minimum student income, based on the recommendations of the independent review, would help more than 170,000 students in further and higher education to be in a much better financial situation than the one that they are in currently. Getting decent financial help would undeniably have a positive knock-on effect on their wellbeing and attainment.

Not all students have the bank of mum and dad to fall back on at the end of each month. Students are as diverse as the subjects that they study. Some are carers, some are parents, some have disabilities and some are even mature students. All of them need a minimum student income. Without it, many students do not start further or higher education in the first place, and too many end up dropping out because they cannot afford to remain.

I want briefly to raise a constituency issue. The young people of our armed forces families living in Scotland are experiencing very real struggles due to the complex nature of their parents’ careers. Let me give a very specific example.

I am sorry, but this has to be brief.

It will be, Presiding Officer.

A young person from Helensburgh has been told that she is unable to receive a tuition fee waiver for a college course because her parents have not bought a home here yet. Her father is a Royal Navy officer who is transferring to Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde. She is living locally, but he is currently in a submarine underwater and will be for the next six months, without any contact at all with his family. Communication in those circumstances is impossible, and no flexibility or help is being given to that young person. I ask either the minister or the cabinet secretary to intervene.

I regard education as a key driver of our economic success, but to enable that economic success to happen we need to provide sufficient support for students to live. It is time that the Scottish Government stepped up to the plate for Scotland’s students.

Thank you. I am sorry, but we are really tight for time in these short debates. That is how it is set out by the bureau and the parties leading the debate. It is tough, but that is the way it is. I call Clare Adamson, to be followed by Murdo Fraser.

15:12  

I had been quite looking forward to the debate, which I thought would be interesting and informative, so I was somewhat disappointed by the tone of the opening speech from the Labour Party, which referred to Scotland’s students being “poorly served”.

We have 120,000 students a year studying in Scotland, benefiting from free education, and we have more students attending our colleges and universities. To say that we are letting them down is painting the worst possible picture.

I have listened to the pleas from the Labour Party about what it wants the Government to do and what it says the Government should do. I have sympathy with a lot of what it is saying, but why did it not bring forward such proposals for the budget, which was passed only a few weeks ago? It could have done that then.

We have repeatedly, in previous budget proposals, included a call for improvements to student support—to no avail. Perhaps we should blame the Greens for not putting that in their budget deal, or—here is a good idea—let us blame the Government, which is in charge of the budget.

I cannot believe that we are arguing and making comments about manifestos from 2007 as if the financial crisis had never happened—and that is from the party of backdoor tuition fees.

I welcome the contributions from colleagues around the chamber who have approached the debate in a positive way.

I want to talk about parity of esteem. I looked back at some of the work that was done around the summary recommendations of “A New Social Contract for Students—Fairness, Parity and Clarity”. At the time, the Government commissioned the Institute for Public Policy Research to do some research on support for students, which involved five international comparisons—its report went into great detail on those. It presented

“some more general discussion of the relationship between financial aid and student participation, retention and experiences.”

The IPPR report highlighted that there was a very different approach in the UK, in particular towards higher education and the vocational post-compulsory education and training—VET—areas. The data draws out some commonalities with other countries, but most countries do not separate the higher education and VET areas in the way that we seem to have done in the UK, which has led to the disparity of esteem that we talk about so much.

I spent last week at New College Lanarkshire in Motherwell, speaking to some of the Construction Industry Training Board joinery apprentices there, and seeing some of the great work that they are doing in the college. I remember that fondly, because I used to watch my father and my brother go to university together. They were both on student grants at the time, and I understand what it means for people who are from poorer backgrounds to be able to access higher and further education.

It is a complex situation. The IPPR pointed out that we do not have full control over social security benefits, including housing support, which makes the situation more complex when we try to do the right thing by our students.

Will the member take an intervention?

The member is definitely in her last minute.

I am sorry, but I do not have time. I have taken one already.

It is important that we recognise that if we had more powers to deal with issues such as social security, we would be in a better position to support our students in a simpler and less complex way, which is what the IPPR recommends.

15:16  

As Iain Gray fairly pointed out at the start of the debate, it is not possible to have a discussion in Parliament on student support without thinking back to the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. That was the election when, famously, the SNP stood on a platform to dump the debt. It promised every student and every graduate in Scotland that their student debt would be written off. Needless to say, that never happened. In fact, after 12 years of the SNP in government, far from student debt having been dumped, it has in fact doubled. Therefore, we have to take anything that the SNP says on the issue with a serious pinch of salt.

In her comments, Liz Smith drew a comparison between the situation in Scotland and that south of the border. Although I do not think that we in the Parliament need always look at what happens down south, nevertheless there are sometimes useful comparisons to be drawn. Despite all the rhetoric that we hear about free education in Scotland, it is simply not the case that the fee regime that exists in England and Wales—which is not one that we support—has deterred people who are from less well-off backgrounds from accessing higher education. Indeed, the admission rate for people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds to universities in England has for a long time been substantially higher than it is in Scotland. The reason for that is very simple: people who are from the poorest backgrounds do not pay tuition fees, either up front or deferred. Moreover, they have, in the past, been able to access much more generous bursary support, which is funded from fee income to the higher education sector. We need to end, once and for all, the nonsense claims that having fees or a graduate contribution will, in themselves, deter people who are from poorer backgrounds from going to university, because the evidence tells us something completely different.

Will the member take an intervention?

I will give way, but I hope that the minister will accept that point. There is no evidence of that central claim.

Can I take it from Murdo Fraser’s comments that his policy remains to scrap free higher education and reintroduce tuition fees?

I note that the minister did not admit that basic point. He should look at the evidence. He will know perfectly well that, in the past, we have set out plans for a modest graduate contribution. For coming elections, we will set out in manifestos exactly what our policy is at that particular time. The minister needs to accept the reality that having a graduate contribution does not deter people from the poorest backgrounds from going to university, because that is precisely what the evidence tells us.

We have backing on that point from the former Scottish Government civil servant, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, who confirmed that free tuition, alongside the cut in grants that has been delivered by the SNP, has helped middle-class families and students and made poorer students worse off. This is what Lucy Hunter Blackburn said:

“Free tuition in Scotland is the perfect middle-class, feel-good policy. It’s superficially universal, but in fact it benefits the better-off most, and is funded by pushing the poorest students further and further into debt.”

That is a damning verdict on the SNP Government’s record in the area.

We are now seeing growing concerns from middle-class parents in Scotland about access to universities here. The cap on places for Scottish students—again a direct result of the so-called free education policy—means that many talented pupils are not able to get into the university of their choice in Scotland. We see the consequences of that in our national health service. We are turning away far too many talented young Scots who want to study medicine here and cannot get a place, at a time when our NHS desperately needs their skills.

Liz Smith set out the principles that should apply to student support and endorsed the recommendations in the recent independent review, including the principle of a minimum income level. I agree with that approach. We need to be informed by the work that is going on. I am pleased to support the amendment in Liz Smith’s name.

15:20  

I have a long-standing interest in student support, so I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate this afternoon.

My first job was as a welfare adviser in a students association, and I vividly remember dealing with hugely distressed students who were trying to prove their independent status. I remember one student, in particular, who had had a really negative experience of coming out and had been disowned by their parents. The student could not prove that they were now self-funding and they were battling with the Student Awards Agency for Scotland to get the bursary support that they needed. We also operated a crisis fund—a discretionary grants scheme—on behalf of the university, and we had to make decisions daily on applications for funds from people who needed to pay for childcare or who were on the verge of being evicted from their flats. It was desperate stuff, and student poverty is still prevalent, if not worse, today.

I left that job in 2006 to go and work for the National Union of Students. Alongside student officers, I helped to draft the NUS Scotland manifesto for the 2007 election. It is with that background that I say that I welcome the idea of a student minimum income guarantee, which the independent review put forward. However, it is not a new idea; NUS Scotland proposed it back in 2006.

I went through my old emails today and found a document—I have a habit of keeping copious notes, which should worry quite a few people. It is a grid that shows what each political party said in its 2007 manifesto in response to NUS Scotland’s call for a guaranteed minimum income. It is interesting to see that there was a reference to the idea in almost every party’s manifesto: it was on page 28 of the Tory manifesto; the Greens, who were the only party to fully endorse it, had it on page 9; it was on page 34 of the Labour manifesto; and it was on page 28 of the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto.

The only political party that made no reference to a minimum income guarantee was the SNP, of course, because the SNP was promising to abolish student loan debt altogether. What an embarrassing situation we find ourselves in today.

The idea behind the minimum income guarantee was to take on the costs of rent and food and avoid a situation in which poorer students must take on part-time jobs to get by. Back in 2006, we were arguing that it should be £7,000; it has not increased hugely since then.

Clare Adamson bemoaned not having particular powers over the welfare system to do things that she would like to do. The SNP has had full power and control over student support for 12 years, and if she wanted there to be parity between FE and HE, she would have done something over the past 12 years to guarantee an income for FE students.

Richard Lochhead said that we have the best package of student support in the UK. That is hardly a badge of pride for him to carry, when we have a Tory Government that is the most right-wing, dysfunctional Government that I have seen in my lifetime.

Before members denounce what is happening in Labour Wales, let me say to the Government that the poorest students in Wales get £6,000-worth of bursary support, which is three times what the SNP offers the poorest students here in Scotland. It is high time the Government did something about that.

I am fed up of hearing calls from SNP members for parity of esteem between FE and HE, when they have done little, if anything, to address that. SNP members could turn their minds to far more imaginative ideas, such as how to help people who want to get off benefits and make the transition into college. It is almost impossible to move from housing benefit into FE, because the person has to forgo six weeks of benefit and then wait for student support. The SNP Government has the power to introduce new benefits now to help people to move off benefits and make a life for themselves and their families.

SNP members’ heads are down. They know that they can do better. They know that their record is in tatters. It is high time that they admitted it.

15:25  

There is an ever-greater recognition that we need to offer a broader range of choices and pathways if either higher or further education is genuinely to provide opportunities to all of Scotland’s young people in the future.

We have a lot of work to do before we get to that position of equality, but it is important that we recognise what is already being done in our colleges and universities. As other speakers have indicated, more Scots than ever are winning a place at university, but it is also important to say that more Scots than ever from our most deprived communities are going there, too.

Clearly, there is more than one factor at play in overcoming educational inequalities. The need for more contextual admissions policies is certainly one, but many of the factors that determine inequalities in further and higher education are the same factors that impact on inequality and poverty more generally, and the UK Government’s benefits reforms represent but one such factor that comes to mind.

The independent review of student support recognised those problems among students, both in further and higher education, and the Scottish Government has responded by improving support for both groups in the past year. Indeed, the amount that the Scottish Government paid out in grants and bursaries last year was £76.3 million, which is 8.9 per cent more than the previous year. However, nobody in Scotland is shying away from the reality of student poverty, and neither does the independent review, referring as it does to examples of students who felt compelled to live off credit cards or payday loans at some times of the year.

I have said something about what the Scottish Government is doing in response to such difficulties, but some of the things that it is not doing represent an equally important contribution to solving the problem. As we have heard today, some members do not like hearing about how Scottish policy differs from that in the rest of the UK—sometimes because they find the very idea of difference offensive, and sometimes because it is just information that they do not want to hear.

However, Scotland’s decision not to follow the UK’s precedent in some areas of higher and further education policy has been a very conscious one. That decision has had its own financial implications but, I believe, its own benefits, too. Therefore, I make no apology for referring to one of the biggest policy differences of any kind between Scotland and the rest of the UK: university tuition. It is free in Scotland as opposed to the £9,000-a-year fees that are now common in England. There is a reason why the average student loan debt in Scotland is significantly lower than it is in any other part of the United Kingdom. In England, the average debt is £32,220; in Scotland, it is £11,740. It is important to mention that we have also made clear that, in Scotland, we have no intention of following the UK Government’s decision to abolish maintenance grants for new students.

The Scottish Government has also sent out an important signal by confirming that eligible students from other European Union countries on courses beginning in Scotland in 2019-20 will continue to be supported for the duration of their courses. That is further evidence that, despite the endless uncertainty of where the UK is headed this week or next week with regard to Brexit, Scotland is determined to show that we understand the huge benefit to Scotland that students from around Europe represent.

As this report makes clear, we have much to do, but much is being done in Scotland for students in further and higher education, and the fact that we are not following the mistaken UK education policies is something that we should never let slip from our minds.

15:29  

As previous speakers have said, student support is a vital area for discussion, so I welcome today’s debate.

Far too often, the issue of student support has been drowned out in the noise that is created in the discussion of tuition costs. As others have said, although tuition costs matter, they have not always been represented in the most accurate way. However, there are genuine concerns around student support and the cost of living at university and college. For many students in the Highlands and Islands, which I represent, going to university means moving away from home—often a long distance away from home.

The independent review is a good start in tackling those problems. The principle of a minimum income is a welcome suggestion that could provide additional clarity and certainty to prospective students. The issue of parity between further and higher education mirrors the issue of parity of esteem between differing destinations. If we are to support that parity of esteem, there must also be greater fairness in our approach. Students who choose a different route should not find their choices narrowed or their conditions reduced. There was broad support for those principles in the independent review’s consultation, so it is important that the Scottish Government responds effectively to the review’s findings.

Going to university in Scotland remains a costly business, and the average debt level is not the only element. Today, young people from low-income backgrounds are the most likely recipients of larger student loans. We should be mindful of that and its future impact on social mobility. The issue of repayment is raised in the review, but it seems to have received little attention in the chamber. This year, the annual repayment threshold for a student loan in Scotland inched above £18,000 for the first time but, for plan 2 student loans, which are available to students south of the border, the repayment threshold is already £25,000. Although an announcement was made last year that that level will be matched in Scotland by 2021-22, the obvious point is that low-earning graduates with student loans continue to pay more in Scotland and they even have to pay back when students from other parts of the UK do not.

That was recognised as an issue in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto, which pledged a threshold increase to £22,000, but we are still some distance away from that. In the meantime, are we supposed to believe that the position in Scotland can somehow be seen as fairer to students and graduates here? The long-standing and significant disparities between the two student loan types leave Scottish graduates with a considerably worse deal, often at the very start of their careers. Just as important, those disparities leave lower-earning graduates more out of pocket.

Those examples are emblematic of the lack of attention that has been paid to student support. For too many years, a real focus on student funding in the round has been sacrificed for a narrow glance at tuition costs. The independent review is a credible attempt to address the issues, but it has resulted in the same lack of clarity and the same delays from the Scottish Government that have burdened discussions on student support in the past.

I welcome the warm words from the SNP on the review’s recommendations, but I cannot forget the cynical promises that that party made more than 12 years ago, when it narrowly won an election on the back of a pledge to wipe out student debt in its entirety. Instead of that, we have seen a doubling of average debt and Scottish graduates have been left worse off through the repayments system. Again and again, the burden has fallen on those who are least able to pay. Therefore, it is essential that we have less SNP rhetoric and more reform, and that reform must be carried out at pace.

15:32  

This is an important debate, and there is nothing in the Labour motion that I disagree with in principle—students must have sufficient income to live on. However, the fact is that the Scottish Government has already committed to more investment in student support than the review immediately called for, as the £21 million it has committed goes further than the £16 million that was recommended in the review.

Student funding is at the core of our higher education system, and the SNP Government remains committed to providing all students, especially those from our most deprived communities, with the financial support that they need to succeed. Our commitment not to charge university tuition fees is one of the most precious policies that the Government has introduced, and I am extremely proud of it. It is not just one factor in widening access to education—it is a huge factor.

This year and next, we are investing £16 million to expand access to further and higher education bursaries for students from the lowest-income families and we will raise the higher education bursary income threshold from £19,000 to £21,000. In addition, bursary support will be lifted from £1,875 per year to £2,000 per year. Last year, bursary provision rose by 8.9 per cent to £76.3 million.

Currently, a 19-year-old full-time further education student in Scotland can receive a bursary of up to £4,247 per year, which is the highest level anywhere in the UK. In comparison, a 19-year-old full-time further education student in England can receive up to £1,200 per year, while the figure in Wales is £1,500 and in Northern Ireland it is £2,092. Crucially, at a time when we want to encourage more young people to study in Scotland, the Scottish Government has confirmed that it will support eligible EU students who commence courses in the academic year 2019-20.

Does the member acknowledge that the £4,100 for FE students is half of what the independent review said that they should have access to?

The minister explained that we are working towards building on that. That is part of the review that we are looking at. We cannot discount the fact that students here do not pay tuition fees and that the figure here is still the best in the UK.

The number of Scots who are entering university is at a record high, as is the number of students from the most deprived areas who are attending university. We have no intention of following the UK Government, which abolished maintenance grants for new students in England from the 2016-17 academic year.

It is also worth emphasising that the average student loan debt in Scotland is significantly lower than it is in any other part of the United Kingdom. In England, the average student loan debt is £32,220; in Scotland, it is £11,740. That is a huge difference.

However, there is still work to do, and we cannot be complacent. Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who led the independent review that resulted in “A New Social Contract for Students: Fairness, Parity and Clarity”, said in that report:

“The Scottish Government’s focus on funding tuition fees for social and economic prosperity is to be commended.”

To build on that report, we established the commission on widening access, and we are leading an evidence-based programme for implementation. We are determined that young people of all backgrounds have access to higher and further education.

In conclusion, the Scottish Government regards education and student wellbeing as a top priority. I believe that our record in supporting students demonstrates that beyond doubt.

15:36  

I am pleased to close this debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.

I thank the Labour Party for bringing the debate to Parliament, and I once again impress on the Government the importance of making its own time available to debate education issues in the chamber.

Iain Gray was right to highlight the fact that students in Scotland have been poorly served overall by the SNP. Once again, the Government’s rhetoric does not match the reality of the lives of people throughout the country. We saw that in the decision by various SNP back benchers to dodge difficult questions again. I wonder how Dr Allan can recognise student poverty, yet not recognise that it has taken his party and the Government 12 years and an independent review to get to the point of having an ambition to do something about it. That is disappointing, and it does not serve any of us well. The debate has brought the issues out into the open and ensured that we have started to consider the independent review report’s recommendations in the round.

It is important that we agree that the availability of student support is just as important a factor in a student’s decision about whether to attend college or university as any other factor. If people do not have enough money to meet their immediate living costs, the idea that they will go to university is simply unrealistic.

It is imperative that we ensure that there is support for people who go to college, not just university. I represent a rural area, and I know that people sometimes have to travel quite far afield to access college courses.

Ross Greer was right: there is much more that all the parties agree on in principle than separates us, at least in terms of ambition. As a starting point, we must acknowledge that the current system is far from adequate and that, in many respects, it fails some of the students who depend on it most. We need new thinking and an honest debate about higher education funding policies, rather than simply pretending that all is going well.

Tavish Scott was right to highlight the balance between loans and bursaries. That is an important distinction for people, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Some of the decisions that need to be taken are complicated, but we must recognise that some of the recommendations in the report are much simpler and quicker to implement, including those on improving clarity for students and ensuring that they and their parents fully understand the financial support that is available. We must also get messages out there about the improvements to certain areas of support that have been made since the review.

More important is that we should all be concerned by the comments from Lucy Hunter Blackburn, who is a University of Edinburgh researcher and a former Scottish Government civil servant. She said:

“the review is heavier on presentation than evidence and analysis, and ducks the issue of part-time maintenance support.”

She added:

“This feels like a review whose impact on higher education, at least, was always intended to be strictly limited.”

Those comments should give us cause for concern.

Failing to consider all the options properly and pushing difficult issues to one side will not help students or support the sustainability of the university sector. It is yet another example of the SNP Government’s pick-and-mix approach to policy development, which is taken not just in higher education, but across government.

15:41  

I very much welcome the debate, and I value the speeches that have been made by members from all parties in the chamber.

We should not underestimate the challenges that Scotland’s students face. I have regular meetings with NUS Scotland, as well as with students on all our campuses across the country, so I am well aware—as, I am sure, we all are—of the day-to-day pressures that students face in relation to their finances and living standards. NUS Scotland is working on an initiative that looks at the costs of the student day and at all the issues that relate to living costs. The Scottish Government has agreed to work with NUS Scotland to address some of those issues in due course, once the surveys and research have been carried out.

Today, Scotland’s students and young people face real issues. There are also issues that are faced by all Scotland’s families, given that we have had 10 years of Conservative Party austerity and are now facing the impact of Brexit on our economy. We should not fool ourselves; such issues will impact on Scotland’s further and higher education sectors and on students’ living standards.

Important issues have been raised by members today.

On a point of fact and for clarification, will the minister confirm that the Scottish Government does not offer the best support package in the UK for the lowest-income students?

I will come to the support that we give Scotland’s students, which I mentioned in my opening remarks. I believe that we offer the best package in the whole of the UK. I will address the point in a couple of seconds.

We have heard a lot of hyperbole and misleading comments, particularly from Labour members, and we have heard about right-wing measures from Conservative members, as we would expect. For example, Murdo Fraser and Liz Smith seemed to suggest that free higher education in Scotland means that Scottish students are chased away from Scottish institutions. The most recent Universities and Colleges Admission Service figures show that the number of Scots who win a place at university is at a record high. The number of Scotland-domiciled, full-time, first-degree university entrants has risen by 16 per cent, from just over 25,000 in 2006-07, when the SNP Government came to power, to just under 30,000 in 2017-18.

There is some truth in what the minister has said. However, the most important point is that, as a result of so-called free higher education, far too many people who are domiciled in Scotland are not get getting access to places.

We are at a record high. I will come back to that point in a second or two—if time allows, given that I have taken two interventions.

Despite the hyperbole and outrageous claims that we have heard from some members, it has been a good debate overall, with valuable points made. However, I need to pick up on what Jackie Baillie said about free higher education being a small part of the equation. I would argue that, given the support that the policy has provided to Scotland’s students in knocking down barriers and widening access to higher education, it is a pretty monumental part of the equation. We should not lose sight of that.

We would love to do more about the debt that students inherit when they leave university. If we had received more affluent budgets, we would have been able to do a lot more. Had we not had a £2 billion real-terms cut from the UK Government, I am sure that we could have done much more for Scotland’s students. Let us look at the facts about the debt that graduates in Scotland inherit, which many members have mentioned. In England, the figure is £34,800; in Wales, it is £21,520; in Northern Ireland, it is £22,440; and in Scotland, it is £13,230. Students who attend a Scottish institution leave with a lot less debt than those who attend institutions in any other part of the UK.

We have also heard claims that somehow free higher education and the student support package in Scotland are deterring people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have, of course, a lot more to do to attract students from such backgrounds. Ross Greer is quite right to say that that is a major issue that we have to address—[Interruption.]

Minister, sit down a minute, please.

It is too noisy—I want to hear what the minister is saying. If members want to say something, they should try to intervene or say what they want to say when summing up. This is a short debate, and I want to hear everybody.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am sure that Scotland’s students really want to hear what we have to say, given the importance of the issue to them. [Interruption.]

As far as widening access to higher education is concerned, I note that, in 2017-18, 15.6 per cent of Scottish full-time degree entrants to Scottish universities came from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. We are making significant progress; indeed, that is a highly significant statistic. This is about people who might previously not have gone to university now having the opportunity to do so. I commend our colleges, which these days are involved in a lot of higher education provision, and, of course, our university sector for all that they are doing to widen access. The commissioner for fair access has said:

“The latest figures vindicate”

the Scottish

“policy of free higher education”.

The issues are very important. Scotland has some of the most generous bursaries in the whole of the UK, free higher education and even the best terms and conditions for loans. [Interruption.] Scotland’s students have the best package. There is a lot more to do, but the SNP Government is certainly delivering for Scotland’s students.

Thank you.

Mr Findlay, the minister took two interventions, and I made a comment. I gave him his time back for that, so do not say anything to me about how long he is getting. I am in charge of the debate—[Interruption.] I am sorry—this is not a discussion.

Presiding Officer—

No, no, no, no! I do not want to hear from you unless it is a point of order.

Aye, it is.

Right. Let me hear your point of order.

Presiding Officer, I was not directing my comments at you, with respect.

Thank you. I take that as an apology for my mishearing you.

I was not apologising—

Oh no—I do not expect an apology from you, Mr Findlay.

I was not addressing you.

I beg your pardon—you were looking at me when you said it, and I am not going to have that as the chair, who is conducting the debate. When a member takes an intervention, I try to compensate them, whoever they are.

That has wasted even more time. Ms Fee, would you sum up for Labour, please?

15:47  

Student financial support is in need of urgent reform. No one in the chamber can disagree with that, and many members across the chamber have expressed concern about the lack of progress on the issue.

Scottish Labour welcomed the independent review of student support. Our motion today highlights the need for

“a Minimum Student Income, tied to the Scottish Government’s living wage, as recommended by the independent review”.

We need the Scottish Government now to urgently bring forward plans to implement that. After all, the proposal comes from the review that it initiated—a review that, as Iain Gray pointed out, Labour welcomed in 2017 and which we continue to support.

Our motion, in the name of Iain Gray, demands urgency. If the motion is agreed to this evening, we want the ministers to come back here in the next few weeks with a plan for reform, because we want students to benefit in the next academic year—not at some vague time in the future. By supporting the motion, Parliament will send a clear message that we take such a commitment seriously. Despite indicating its support for our motion and being given every opportunity today to give a timescale for coming back to Parliament with a plan—

Will the member give way?

If the minister is going to give me a timescale, I am happy to do so.

I want to reassure Mary Fee that, as I have said, the Government will support the Labour Party’s motion. I undertake, as minister, to inform Parliament in early course about our journey towards the minimum income guarantee.

I say with respect that “in early course” is not good enough. We require urgency and a plan.

We do not want our young people to face having to balance education against debt. Instead of dumping the debt for students, as it promised, in 2007, it would do, the SNP in Government has delivered devastating cuts to student support, which has caused debt to soar by 169 per cent.

Scottish Labour would reform student support, and would begin by implementing a new social contract for students, which would include a minimum student income, as was recommended—I say again—in the student support review.

Scottish Labour axed tuition fees, thereby supporting thousands to study on the basis of their ability to learn, and not on their ability to pay. Our new social contract would benefit more than 170,000 students. It would include a minimum student income linked to the real living wage, and would give students a guaranteed income to study.

Instead of delivering its promise to dump the debt, the Scottish Government has, by cutting the young student bursary, forced more young people to rely on loans and has driven student debt up . The bursary that is available to students today is lower than it was before the SNP cut it by almost £900 in 2013. The new proposal on the student bursary will increase the bursary, but it would still be less than the pre-2013 figure. That disproportionately affects our poorest students.

The SNP Government commissioned the independent review of student support, but ignored its recommendations and watered down its support for the review. We welcome the Government’s commitment to raising the repayment threshold, but we now need to build consensus to deliver. We must develop equity and parity between the higher education and further education sectors. For too long, college students have had a raw deal. It is only right that we take steps now to remedy that.

We know that the situation south of the border has resulted in students facing £9000 of debt for each year of university. We do not support the return of tuition fees in Scotland, and especially not for the poorest students. A new social contract that was tied to the living wage would provide what students need. Many students will continue to work: a real living wage in the workplace of £10 an hour—as pledged by Labour—will continue to support students throughout their time studying.

The National Union of Students Scotland’s briefing for today’s debate highlights its reservations about the introduction of loans in further education. It reiterates its view that improvements to student support should be delivered through increased bursaries rather than through loans. There should be less focus on promoting loans, and more on tackling student debt. Cuts to bursaries have caused higher debt, which is not sustainable.

Nobody wants to see our young people being saddled with debt and dropping out of university and education settings. We need real tangible support for our young people in order that they can achieve their potential. That is why I urge everyone in the chamber to support our motion.

That concludes the debate on student support. It is time to move on to the next item of business.