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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 12 June 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Scottish Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2016, Student Support, Improving the Lives of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers, Decision Time, Orkambi


Contents


Student Support

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

We move to our next item of business, which is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on student support. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement. I encourage members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible.

14:54  

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

This Government has made to people who want to study at college and university in Scotland the firm commitment that access must be based on the ability to learn, and not on the ability to pay.

We have restored free education for first-time undergraduates, which helps more than 120,000 students who study in Scotland every year. The chair of the independent review of student support, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, commented:

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

More full-time higher education students than ever are receiving support—a total of 143,110 in 2016-17, which is up 1.5 per cent from 2015-16. Meanwhile, the 2018-19 further education budget is at the record level of more than £111 million for college bursaries, childcare and discretionary funds, which is a real-terms increase of 34 per cent since 2006-07.

However, I know that there is more to be done to build a fairer future for all. That is why the Scottish Government established the review of student support. I formally state my thanks to the review board’s independent chair, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, and the review board members. It was essential for the Government to take some time to consider the recommendations—in particular, those that involve complex interactions, such as with the social security system.

I have already welcomed the report’s central premise of creating a student support system that is based on the key values of fairness, parity and clarity. I want Scotland’s student support system to be focused on the poorest students, which complements our wider ambitions to reduce child poverty and to widen access to university.

In response to the review, I wrote on 9 June to the convener of the Education and Skills Committee to outline a number of significant announcements to improve student support. They include an additional £21 million per year by the end of this parliamentary session to be invested in improving student support over the session. As part of that, investment of more than £5 million will be provided in 2018-19 to increase to £8,100 per year bursaries for full-time care-experienced students, as per the review’s recommendation that funding should be equivalent to the living wage. The further education care-experienced bursary will increase from £4,185 to £8,100, and the higher education care-experienced bursary will rise from £7,625 to £8,100 per year.

Those steps are of particular significance, because they will take the support that is available to care-experienced HE and FE students to a level that is equivalent to the real living wage. Provision of support that is equivalent to the real living wage was, of course, a key part of the recommendations of the review. We share the review’s ambition to achieve that level of support for all students, so we are pleased that we have been able to deliver that in the first instance for care-experienced students.

We will also invest £16 million in 2019-20 to increase further and higher education bursaries for students from the lowest-income families, and to expand access for them. I am pleased to provide more detail on that today. In order to support access to bursaries for students from the poorest families, we will from 2019-20 raise the higher education bursary income threshold from £19,000 to £21,000. We will also increase bursary support for the poorest young students in higher education from £1,875 per year to £2,000 which, combined with raising the HE bursary threshold, will benefit 13,500 students. Further to that, we will increase bursary support for the poorest independent students in higher education from £875 per year to £1,000, which will benefit nearly 18,000 students. Those combined improvements will result in about 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. In addition, from 2019-20 we will ensure that all eligible further education students aged 18 and over will receive a guaranteed bursary award. That means that students will not face the postcode lottery effect, which the National Union of Students Scotland has long campaigned to end. Taken together, those changes will also increase the total support package that is available to students, and represent the first step towards realising the ambition of delivering the equivalent of the real living wage to students.

Additional funding will also be provided to support another key area. I have asked the Student Awards Agency for Scotland to lead on improvements to information, advice, guidance and financial literacy. The aspiration is to offer a joined-up approach for further and higher education, and to build on the good work that is already under way in schools and for parents and guardians. The ambition is a combined online portal for student finance information during the 2019-20 academic year. I recognise that some students will be unable to access advice online, so I want to ensure that we provide it via other means, too. We will also seek to improve financial literacy, with increased guidance on student loans, budgeting and repayment terms.

I want to ensure that students are supported not just during their studies, but after they graduate. As part of our programme for government, we committed to raising the repayment threshold for student loans to £22,000 by the end of this session of Parliament. However, we have gone further than that: I am pleased to confirm that the loan repayment threshold will be increased to £25,000 from April 2021, which will reduce monthly loan repayments for thousands of Scottish graduates. A number of system and legislative adjustments are required in order to deliver practically on that commitment, so Scottish Government officials are engaging with key stakeholders to undertake that work. I will also introduce by the end of 2018 legislation to reduce the maximum repayment period for student loans from 35 to 30 years.

I will now outline the Government’s response to some of the other specific recommendations. The review reported unfair and inflexible attendance criteria in colleges. Over recent months, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and the National Union of Students Scotland have worked closely to make improvements for the coming academic year.

The Scottish Government wants in place a system in which bursary awards are based on students’ engagement in their studies, and which takes clear account of their personal circumstances—for example, caring responsibilities and other important factors including mental and physical health. NUS Scotland has stated:

“This is a huge win for students, and gives students’ associations the back-up they need in challenging unfair policies at a local level.”

We have made a clear commitment to supporting college and university students’ mental health and wellbeing. In March 2018, we confirmed more than £250,000 funding to NUS Scotland for its think positive mental health project across Scotland’s campuses.

We are also committed to making university and college campuses places where students can live, study and conduct research free of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. We have provided an additional £396,000 to implement a new toolkit to address gender-based violence on campus.

We are clear that an essential role is played by college and university staff in providing valuable advice to students on accessing financial support. We want that face-to-face support and advice to continue and grow.

The review made it clear that it was unable to consider a number of areas. As a result, there are some recommendations that I am committed to investigating further.

A new approach for students who are eligible to remain on social security benefits while studying was recommended. Negotiations on that are required with the Department for Work and Pensions. Work has commenced on that, and early exploratory discussions with the DWP are under way. The aspiration is clear: it is to ensure that no prospective student is disadvantaged or discouraged from undertaking studies due to potential loss, while they are studying, of social security benefits to which they are entitled.

Following the review’s recommendations, we are committed to reviewing all non-core and discretionary support. We have already provided more than £7 million in discretionary funding for further education students in this academic year, and more than £16 million will be invested for higher education students in 2018-19.

We will also look at support for part-time and disabled students and for carers. That will take account of the significant investment that we already provide to support students with additional needs. Universities receive funding from the Scottish funding council to ensure that institution and course provision is more inclusive for students with additional needs. A total of £2.8 million was allocated to universities in academic year 2016-17, and colleges have access to a £50.5 million access and inclusion fund to help them to achieve parity of outcomes for all students at college. The student voice is essential in that process, so we will launch a consultation to hear the views of learners. I expect that work to commence in the new academic year.

The review called for parity across further and higher education, with the introduction of loans for further education. It gathered valuable evidence, including highlighting cases of students using credit cards or payday loans to supplement their income. That issue cannot and will not be ignored. Independent research that will focus on distinct groups of students will commence soon, and will report by the end of 2018. That research will provide an evidence base on demand and concerns. I will be able to consider that recommendation further once we have a solid evidence base to underpin that consideration.

Finally, we have noted the review’s findings that students want more choice over the timings of their payments. Higher education students in particular would like 12 monthly payments rather than their being paid just over term time. That will require engagement with the Student Loans Company, and the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that there are no negative consequences for students who receive social security benefits.

In summing up, I say that I am very pleased to have been able to share with the chamber today our commitment to improving student support for our most disadvantaged students, and to provide more detail on care-experience bursaries.

I recognise that a number of areas require further work, and I have outlined how that will be taken forward. Also, as I have made clear throughout the statement, the poorest students are at the forefront of my thinking about any changes that are introduced or considered. I want to ensure that all prospective students, regardless of their background, are equipped with what they need to fulfil their potential.

I absolutely agree with Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who said that

“education has the power to transform lives”.

I believe that the changes that we have introduced and are considering will help to do just that.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. That was quite a detailed statement from the minister, and I am conscious that the previous statement overran. That will not affect the opening questioners, but I ask that all subsequent questioners make sure that their questions are succinct. Perhaps the minister will be similarly succinct in her answers.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the minister for early sight of the statement. I welcome many aspects of it, particularly in the context of the lessons to be learned from Professor Sir Ian Diamond’s report on similar issues in student support in Wales and from the report from Jayne-Anne Gadhia.

Student support is never an easy area of policy making, especially in the increasingly complex world of further and higher education. We need to be mindful of making hasty comparisons across the board. That said, I want to ask the minister three key questions.

First, the minister stated that bursary support for the poorest students in higher education will rise from £1,875 to £2,000, but in 2013 the figure was £2,640, so the £2,000 will still be £640 below what it was five years ago. Does the minister really believe that that is acceptable?

Secondly, will the minister explain why, when the Scottish Government has the power to make them before then, the full range of changes will not be made until 2020-21?

Thirdly, in relation to part-time students—who have made earnest representations to the Scottish Government that they should receive greater focus, not least because of their importance in expanding the flexibility of the economy—it is disappointing to have heard them receive only scant mention at the end of the statement. Could the minister at least explain the principles that she is examining for part-time support?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will begin with the issue of part-time students, because it is very important. The review that was chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia did not look at part-time students. It could have done so, but as Liz Smith said, that is a very complex area. It is an area that the review did not get round to, so the review board has asked the Scottish Government to look at it. We will do that during the consultation process that I said will begin later this year.

On timescales, I am afraid that Liz Smith is incorrect: we simply do not have the powers to enact many of the changes. Some require changes by the Student Loans Company, and some require changes at United Kingdom Government level—in particular, those around the loan that we are looking to build for Scottish students, because that will have to be a distinctly separate offer. We simply do not have the ability within the legislative powers that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament to do that.

When it comes to the higher education bursaries, changes were made in 2013-14 that focused on the level of funding in its totality that was made available to students. That was done with the support of NUS Scotland. I recognise that times have moved on, which is exactly why we are, having listened to concerns that came from NUS Scotland, taking steps today to increase the bursary for the poorest students who are moving into higher education.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the minister for the early sight of her statement. There are indeed some things in it to welcome: the raising of the care-leavers’ bursary and more consistent support, at last, for FE students. The review wanted a shift in balance from loans back to grants for HE students, but the Government told it to abide by financial restraints. However, the core recommendation was that all students should have access to the equivalent of the real living wage, which is £8,100. That was not an ambition, minister—it was a hard recommendation of the review. Why has the Government refused to provide that support for students in general?

Meanwhile, as Liz Smith pointed out, the increase in HE grants does not even restore them to what they were in 2013—in real terms, more than £3,000—when this Government slashed them by 35 per cent, no matter how it is dressed up.

This is the Government that promised to abolish debt, but instead doubled it. Yet again, it will pile even more debt on to students. Why will the minister not just do the right thing and restore grants to the levels at which the Scottish National Party found them when it came to power?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I would have more time for Iain Gray’s statements and questions on the issue if the Labour Party had come forward during the budget negotiations with one call to make this happen, rather than them being based on fantasy figures. We could not even have raised the money that the Labour Party wanted. When the Labour Party comes forward with credible options for public finance, I will take more seriously Mr Gray’s call for the Scottish Government to spend more money.

We are delivering on the Scottish Government’s manifesto commitments that were made at the last election, which were based around the income threshold and the terms of the loan. As I said during the statement and in response to Liz Smith’s question, we are looking very seriously at how we can help the poorest families and address their concerns about accessing higher education. That is why we are taking the step of introducing more than £21 million of additional financial support during this parliamentary session that is focused on the poorest students, which will reassure them that we take their concerns very seriously.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

As the minister outlined in her statement, NUS Scotland has long campaigned against the postcode lottery effect in further education bursary support. Will she expand further on how today’s announcement will put an end to the postcode lottery and, crucially, how the changes will be communicated to our students to ensure that the most vulnerable do not miss out?

I remind members that I am parliamentary liaison officer to the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It will be a welcome development that we are looking to ensure that we have a guaranteed bursary available to further education students. The postcode lottery, as it was described, was part of the concerns that came through from not just NUS Scotland, but other members of the review group. That is why we have taken the decision to ensure that all eligible full-time students in further education who are over 18 will have the guaranteed bursary, which will make a great deal of difference to them.

However, it will make a difference only if we can highlight to them the availability of the funding. That is why we are investing in improving the information, advice and guidance that come through, as, once again, the review heard how complex the system is and how that put people off from going into courses, particularly in further education. The work that SAAS is undertaking on an online portal for student finance will be important as we develop that and will encourage students and their families to get up-to-date information about what is available for them.

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the commitment that has been made to look at providing more support for disabled students and carers. Will the minister outline the principles that will underpin the commitment and whether it will affect their access to existing support, such as the disabled students allowance and lone parents grant?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I very much look forward to the consultation that will be undertaken later this year, because we will look at all the barriers that have an impact on disabled students and carers. Some of the barriers, but not all, are financial and it is important that we look at that for each demographic of students to find the specific barriers that affect them. The principle behind the consultation is to ensure that we look at the specific needs of individuals and groups of students.

As Alison Harris said, we already support students with disabilities through further and higher education. However, we need to ensure that they get the money in the right and timely way, because one of the other issues that has been raised is that students perhaps receive that support too late after starting. That is why I am very determined to look at all the barriers and not just the level of funding that is in place.

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

I note the minister’s comment that she shares the ambition of the review to achieve student support at the level of the real living wage. Can she outline the timescale and staging posts on the way to her realising that ambition?

Given the financial pressure that exists right now when people are making decisions about whether to go to college or university, can the minister explain why the changes to bursaries will not be implemented until this time next year? Why will the important and straightforward issue of raising the threshold for the repayment of student loans to £25,000 not happen until 2021, which is a full three years away? Why are these changes being implemented—

The Presiding Officer

Ms Lamont, that is too many questions.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Taking this forward is not a straightforward decision for the Government. As I said in my response to Liz Smith, it requires the Student Loans Company to build up an entirely different student loans package. The timescale is not, therefore, our timescale but is the earliest opportunity that the Student Loans Company has said that it would have to do it.

Iain Gray

England did it last year.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As Iain Gray says, England did it last year, but it has a much higher interest rate. It is simply not possible to do this in a different timeframe unless the Labour Party is suggesting that we use that higher interest rate, which has already affected students. I will ensure that we deliver this as quickly as possible.

The year that is required to introduce the bursary changes is also a legislative requirement to ensure that it is done for the academic year following that. The decisions for bursaries and loans for future years will be taken as part of the budget process.

George Adam (Paisley) (SNP)

What discussions did the Scottish Government have with the commissioner for fair access about further work on student finance?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The commissioner did not look at student finance as the commission for fair access requested because a significant review of student finance was on-going under Jayne-Anne Gadhia as chair. However, the commissioner met Jayne-Anne Gadhia a number of times during that review. He will now consider whether further work is required in that area, but as the commissioner is independent from Government, his work plan and timetable will be for him to advise Parliament rather than me.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I welcome the minister’s commitment to more support for higher and further education students who have additional support needs. Does she agree that more part-time college courses are a key means of making access more inclusive? Can she confirm that that specific question will be part of the consultation with learners?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Part-time college courses are exceptionally important, particularly for more mature learners, which is why colleges continue to hold the majority of such courses. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that part-time students in further and higher education have the advantages that enable them to take up those courses. We are determined to look at that within the consultation, because I am determined to ensure that is not just young learners who can access part-time courses, but returners to education, too.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I, too, welcome aspects of the report, including the provisions on mental health and raising the repayment threshold.

We have heard about how the level of debt has increased in recent years. Does the minister think that there is a connection between that and students and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing university? Is that the reason why the levels of those have fallen?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is important that we look into what we can do for the different student demographics. That will ensure that we respond to the needs of students who come from families that might not have a background in higher education or from some of the poorest families.

The Government’s work on the response to the report is focused on ensuring that we deliver for students who come from some of the poorer households. That is why the increases that we are making to bursaries and the income threshold are so important.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to increase support for our care-experienced students, acknowledging the significant barriers that they face in not just accessing but remaining in education. Does the minister agree that we have a special responsibility to our care-experienced young people, since we will continue to have a parental role in many of their lives after they leave care?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I very much recognise the challenges that have been faced by care-experienced students when they access further and higher education, and I want to put on record my thanks to Who Cares? Scotland for the time that it has spent with me and for the time that care-experienced students have spent with me in talking through the difficulties and challenges that they have faced in accessing further and higher education. I am pleased that they are satisfied with the work that is on-going so far. That builds on the First Minister’s commitment to care-experienced young people, and we know that we in the Scottish Government and our agencies must recognise our responsibilities. That is why the Scottish funding council and SAAS are taking on the issue, to ensure that when we develop new services we do so with care-experienced students and applicants taking part in the processes through which we make those changes, so that we can deliver on something that benefits our young people as they go forward into our colleges and universities.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The minister talked about her party’s record in government on student support. When will the 2007 manifesto commitment to wipe out all student debt be delivered, or was that just another empty pre-election promise?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Government was elected with commitments to decrease the terms of loans and increase the thresholds for loans, and we are delivering on that today.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

What impact is the education maintenance allowance, which was scrapped south of the border, having on those from our most disadvantaged communities, such as in my constituency of Glasgow Provan?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We widened the eligibility for education maintenance allowance in January 2016, to ensure that more students from lower-income households could take advantage of financial support and remain in education. As a result of those changes, widening the criteria has made a real impact on the number of young people who would otherwise not have been supported. There has been a big increase in the number of EMA recipients from the 20 most deprived areas, and 36.8 per cent are now from those areas, which is up from 34.9 per cent previously.

Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

It is carers week, so I wonder why there was nothing in the statement for students with caring responsibilities. Why the delay, and when will the minister fulfil the promise that she made to students with caring responsibilities?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is another area that the review of student support did not look at in detail. That is why I have committed to ensuring that the Scottish Government will take on a consultation later this year, but that does not mean that we are not looking to see what we can do to improve the situation. Indeed, this morning, I attended a fair access conference, run by the Scottish funding council, at which we heard directly from individuals with caring experience and the impact that that has been having. The course was widely attended by many people from across the university and college sector, so we are looking to see what can be done in the short term, and we will look closely at what comes back from the consultation to see whether other changes to policy require to be made.

Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

Can the minister outline any plans that the Government has to highlight those changes to our students to ensure that they are receiving the support that they are entitled to?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Student Awards Agency for Scotland will do a great deal of work on that with students as they apply for funding in future years. It is important that we make information on the complex area of further and higher education support as simple and accessible as possible. I look forward to the online portal that SAAS will provide in the next couple of years.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes the statement. I thank the minister and members for their succinct questions and replies.