West College Clydebank and Glasgow University. Pictures by Bill Heaney

By Robert Stevenson

The Scottish National Party came into office promising students that it would “dump the debt monster”, but it did not dump the debt; it dumped the promise, according to Labour Party leader Richard Leonard.

He told Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions: “This week, Audit Scotland revealed the consequences of that dumped promise. Student debt has soared to £5.5 billion—more than double the level in 2011. That is not simply down to expansion in student numbers; the report showed that average student debt per head has more than doubled.

“We know that the poorest students from the poorest communities are forced to borrow most. Will the First Minister simply admit that the SNP misled students and apologise to them?

The First Minister hit back across the Holyrood chamber: “I point out that because of the policies of this SNP Government—not the least of which is to keep access to university free of tuition fees—Scotland has the lowest level of student debt in the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon and Leonard locked horns over student debt.

“The stats that Richard Leonard cites show that average student-loan debt in Scotland is £13,800. However, that compares with a figure in England of £35,950 and a figure in Northern Ireland of £23,550. The figure of £13,800 in SNP-governed Scotland compares with a figure of £22,920 in Labour-runWales, so perhaps the Labour Party is the party that should be apologising for its record in Wales.”

Richard Leonard said: “Some students in Scotland have debts of £27,000; the First Minister knows in her heart of hearts that she is failing to support our students properly. That is why three years ago she set up an independent review of student support. Two years ago, it reported, and the First Minister accepted its recommendations. Parliament supported its core recommendation of a guaranteed minimum student income based on the living wage.

“However, two years on, nothing has happened. The First Minister is letting students down. How many generations of Scottish students will have to go through university before the Government keeps any promise on support for student living?

The First Minister said: “We have seen the smallest increase in student debt in the countries of the UK. There has been an increase of £7,800 in Scotland, but there has been an £9,840 increase in Wales, where Labour is in Government. Richard Leonard says that total debt has increased in Scotland; it has, but in the rest of the UK it has trebled.

“Those are the facts—but let us come to support for poorer students. Full-time students from the poorest areas receive more support than those from the richest areas, and 67 per cent of students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas got a bursary, compared with 22 per cent of those in the richest areas.”

She added: “Since that review was published, we have begun to implement its income guarantee by increasing the bursary for care-experienced students to £8,100 a year. Following the recommendations, we have also raised the higher education bursary threshold, increased bursary support for the poorest young students, and increased bursary support for the poorest independent students in higher education.

“In further education, we have increased the bursary to £4,500 a year. We will introduce a guaranteed system of further education bursaries and move further on the other recommendations. Although Richard Leonard might describe that as “nothing”, for students across the country, it means more money in their pockets, which I think they will welcome warmly.”

But Richard Leonard was far from happy with that answer.

He said: “In 2013, the Government decimated bursary support. In 2013, bursary support in Scotland was worth £2,640 a year. The Government has only just put it back to £2,000 a year—more than £600 less than it was before.

“The First Minister promised to dump the debt, but student debt has soared, and students from the most deprived backgrounds are leaving university with the heaviest burden of debt. The Government is letting down our students, and it is letting down our universities.

“When the budget comes to Parliament next month, will the First Minister reprioritise Scotland’s universities? Will she dump more cuts on our universities, and more debt on our students?

The First Minister wound up: “What Richard Leonard has managed to establish today is that we have the lowest student debt anywhere in the UK and rising support for students in Scotland, including students from our most deprived areas.

“Those are the facts. That is the reality under the SNP Government, and it is why people do not want Labour back in Government ever again.”

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