Grant support for Scottish university students has fallen to its lowest level in a decade.
New government statistics show that the level of grants and bursaries has fallen from £100 million in 2005/06 to just £64 million in 2014/15 – a decline of 36 per cent.
These latest annual figures for student support in Scotland have shown that this fall in support is leading to Scotland’s poorest falling into record amounts of debt.
Scotland’s least well-off students have taken out loans averaging nearly £5,900 a year to fund their living costs, according to the latest Scottish government figures for 2014-2015. This is compared with students from well-off homes who each took out an average loan of £4,600 last year.
Official figures also show, that despite Scottish ministers’ policy of providing free university tuition for all students, student borrowing jumped by 69 per cent for the last academic year up to £430 million, the highest level ever.
As overall spending on grants for living costs has been cut by ministers from £89.4 million to £53 million, Lucy Blackburn Hunter, a former civil servant who specialises in higher education policy, said that the heaviest burden is being carried by the poorest students.
“These are startling figures, and as a nation we shouldn’t be in the least bit proud of these,” she said. “Surely we’ve reached the point now where we take the debate about students’ grants as seriously as the debate about fees and free tuition.
“The whole issue of what grants are available and how they have diminished hasn’t been aired nearly as well.”
Opposition parties in Holyrood have said that these figures show that the SNP’s policies on student funding are failing.
“Since the SNP took office in 2007 the budget for bursaries and grants has been slashed by £40 million and student debt has soared,” the Scottish Labour Party’s opportunities spokesman Iain Gray MSP told The Guardian.
He continued: “Fewer students are getting bursaries, and those who do are getting less support. Thousands of young people from poorer families who have the grades to access the best courses can only get the extra support they need by borrowing more.
“That simply isn’t good enough, especially from a government who were elected on a promise to write off student debt.”
Liam McArthur, the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ education spokesman, also condemned the government’s funding policies, saying: “The SNP promised that they would abolish student debt. Despite the rhetoric, the reality is clear. The gap between bursary and loan support for students has never been wider, lumping poorer students with more debt than ever before.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman said the overall package of support for poorer students was still generous. Including greater use of loans, students living at home would be guaranteed £7,625 a year in overall support – the most in the UK.
Because Scottish students do not need to borrow to fund tuition costs, average debt for Scottish-domiciled students is still the lowest in the UK, the spokeswoman said.
The income threshold for the young student bursary will rise to £19,000 next year. “Whereas the UK government has announced that it will replace the current mix of bursaries and loans for student maintenance in England with a loans-only model for new students from 2016-17,” the spokeswoman commented.