During the 2007 election campaign the SNP put a large focus on the issue of student debt. They promised to scrap the endowment fee which they promptly carried out once they were elected. However in reality this represented a betrayal of Scottish students, and the bare minimum that the new Scottish Government could possibly get away with. During the campaign the SNP had promised in their election material and broadcasts that they were going to scrap the existing debt yet, along with other promises regarding education, such as smaller class sizes, this has been shelved. If this policy had been followed through it would have included transferring £1.9 billion (http://www.journal-online.co.uk/articles/show/2691 ) of loans into grants. It was also strongly indicated that the existing structure would be changed to follow suit with this shift. Instead only very minor concessions were granted and the loan system remains in place.
In many ways it is true that Scottish students studying in Scotland are in a far more favourable position than their English counterparts. We do not have to pay tuition fees, and with the endowment fee scrapped, there are no longer any fees associated directly with studying at university. However there are still huge debts incurred when studying and the student loan system for Scottish students is far less generous than the English one. Students studying in England are entitled to 75% of the maximum loan, with interest being incurred at the rate of inflation. In Scotland the entitlement for most students is far lower than this. Most of the loan is income assessed, which means that generally students with two parents that work full time, even in relatively low paid jobs, will receive less than they would in England.
This creates a massive problem in that studying for many is taken out of their hands and put into their parents’ or their banks’. Under the English system a student is at least assured of being able to afford to study even if they are burdened with a huge debt afterwards. With the system in place in Scotland being able to study depends on the good will of parents or that of banks to lend the money to put them through education. If the latter option is chosen then the debt that is run up is of course far more severe than a student loan; banks do not lend money out of social need and charge high interest rates on their loans. Banks also do not wait until their debtors are earning over £15000 a year to ask for loans to be paid back. This means that some Scottish students face paying back loans with a high interest rate, when they are by any reasonable standard unable to do so.
During to the Scottish Government in 2006 the average student left a Scottish university with a debt of £13,000. (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/07/geabolition) This is approximately half the annual wage of a skilled worker. In such a situation it is hardly surprising that potential students from a low income background would choose not to enter higher education. For the first time in centuries the amount of young Scots in higher education has fallen for a sustained period. Between 2001-2002 and 2005-2006 the number of young Scots in higher education fell from 51.1% to 47.1% (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/07/geabolition). This is a massive regression, given that the previous fifty years or so in particular have been characterised by working class people being able to attend university. However, this may only be the tip of the iceberg. In the current climate of a massive increase in the cost of living, high inflation and a relative fall in wages, not to mention the creeping threat of unemployment, there is the ever present danger of universities becoming yet again institutions reserved for the sons and daughters of the well to do.
The problems faced by Scottish students are part of a similar trend that is being followed throughout Britain. While there are obvious differences between the Scottish and English set-ups the problems for working class students in both is fundamentally the same. In the absence of a decent grant systems students are forced to rely on loans or support from parents and to work and potentially compromise their studies to support themselves through university.
The question of grants is at root a political one; they were originally won under the pressure of the labour movement and were reversed by the Thatcher government. It is only through mobilisation and struggle that students can hope to reclaim them. The fact that potential centres of student militancy such as the University of Glasgow operate outside the NUS is a barrier to enabling this to happen. The NUS may not be militant at present, but it is the only umbrella organisation within which students can mobilise. In recent years the NUS was able to launch a limited but ultimately successful campaign against upfront fees in English universities. In many ways this was done in spite of the NUS leadership rather than at its behest. Only through a national campaign fighting for the abolition of all fees and decent grants for all students in education, mobilising across all the major universities and also reaching out to colleges, schools and the wider labour movement can the right to free universal education truly be guaranteed.