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Salmond's legacy of free education: rock solid or melting in the sun?

Alex Salmond being presented with an honorary degree by Glasgow University Photo: PA

Many politicians seek to secure their rhetorical legacy by writing books which include their most eloquent phrases - soundbites, as we now call them. Very few actually have their words carved in stone, as Alex Salmond had chisled out on his behalf when he stepped down as Scotland's First Minister.

The Elgin sandstone monument, at Heriot-Watt University, bears these words: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (centre left) and Education Secretary Angela Constance meet pupils taking part in active maths and active literacy lessons Credit: PA

For Mr Salmond this policy of "free" higher education was the cornerstone - forgive the pun - of his left-of-centre, social democratic pitch to Scotland. Potential students from poorer backgrounds would not be deterred from going to University by fees, Mr Salmond and the SNP argued.

It is hard to guage how one policy helped any party but "free tuition" certainly did not do the SNP any harm and, they would argue, did them a lot of electoral good. Scotland's students still do not pay tuition fees, while fees of £9,000 a year are charged south of the Border.

But Scotland's students do receive loans and grants from the Scottish government and the latest statistics out today cast a light on who benefits. In 2014-15 the total amount of loans was £468.8 million, and average of £5,270 per student, up from £5,020 the year before.

The number of students receiving non-repayable bursaries and grants decreased by around 2% from £64.9 million to £63.6 million in 2014-15. The question is who benefits most from this funding?

According to Lucy Hunter Blackburn of Edinburgh University students from the poorest backgrounds suffer the most. This, she argues, is because the grants and bursaries, which are based on the students' family income, have been cut.

The numbers getting the Young Students Bursary (YSB) and Independent Students Bursary (ISB) have gone down, year on year. Ms Hunter Blackburn says the total spending on YSB and ISB is now £52m is more than 40% since 2012-13, she calculates.

New figures released today show some students are left with much larger loans Credit: PA

The figures out today, published by the Student Award Agency Scotland, SAAS, also show students from poorer backgrounds have larger loan burdens. Those with incomes of up to £16,999 have an average loan of £5,870 compared to those with an income of over £34,000 have an average loan of £4,600.

To put it another way, students who get a maximum bursary (generally the poorest) have average annual borrowing of £6,650 compared to £4,560 for most well off, those who receive no bursary.

Students south of the Border have been very vocal in their opposition to University tuition fees Credit: PA

Having looked in detail at today's figures, Ms Hunter Blackburn, a former Scottish government civil servant, comes to this conclusion:

"They confirm that in Scotland the poorest students are carrying far more of the growing student debt than their numbers in the system would justify - a function of how decreasing use of grant."

– Lucy Hunter Blackburn of Edinburgh University

And the maximum grant had decreased, from £2,640 in 2012/13 to £1,750 for the year these statistics cover, though it is set to rise to £1,875.

The Scottish Government has not put out a press release on the figures but I will be interviewing Angela Constance, the education secretary, later and will up-date this blog with her reaction.

However, it is likely the minister will argue that her government is supporting (with grants and loans) a very large number of students - 139,370 for the year covered by this report, up 1.5%. The total paid in bursaries, grants, fees and loans for 2014-15 was £781.3m, an increase of 6.3% from the previous year.

The government is also likely to argue that support per student in 2014-15 at £5,610, an increase of 4.9% from the average of the year before of £5,350, shows they are committed to helping young people with their education beyond school. But how has all this helped, or otherwise, the aim of getting more young people from poorer backgrounds into University?

Figures (more figures, sorry) from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show the number of young people from the lowest income fifth of the population going to University in Scotland has risen from 7.3% in 2011 to 9.7% in 2015. In England, where there are tuition fees, the figure has gone from 13.8% to 17% from 2011 to 2015. The UK average is 13.4% in 2011 to 16.6% this year.

Nicola Sturgeon is determined to keep free education Credit: PA

The Scottish government says the classification of certain high education courses north of the Border skews the comparison but does not deny there is a difference north and south of the Border.

The figures out today might lead some to question whether the policy of free tuition fees is delivering on its objective of helping students from poorer backgrounds. But Mr Salmond's successor, Nicola Sturgeon, is adamant it was - and is - the right thing to do.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats appear to agree, though the Tories have suggested free tuition may not be justified. But given the weight of support for the idea, there is no sign that the now famous rock at Heriot-Watt will melt in the sun any time soon.

For good or ill, the tuition fee policy is set in stone.

UPDATE:

I've now spoken to the education secretary, Angela Constance, about this. Ms Constance said 120,000 students in Scotland benefited from the government's policy of no tuition fees.

She told me:

That's a substantial benefit to many young people in Scotland who would not undertake higher education if they were to be burdened with tuition fees.

– Angela Constance, Education Secretary

The education secretary said the minimum income guarantee of £7,625 for students living at home was introduced after consultation with the National Union of Students.

Ms Constance told me:

Yes, there has been a shift from bursaries to loans but it is also worth remembering that students in Scotland leave University with the lowest levels of debt anywhere in the UK.

– Angela Constance
Angela Constance, with Alex Salmond in background Credit: PA

She said a young person will leave University with over £9,000 of debt in Scotland but student debt was as high at £21,000 south of the Border. I put it to Ms Constance that the figures from UCAS (mentioned earlier in this blog) show there has been an increase in poorer students from the bottom 20% of society in Scotland going to University but it was "much, much higher in England where they do have tuition fees..."

Ms Constance told me:

Of course, but what we have in Scotland is a principle that education has to be free...

– Angela Constance

But her political opponents would say they do better in England with poorer students, from the bottom 20%?

Ms Constance replied:

I'm not sure that is the case because we have to be careful to ensure that the figures are comparing like with like.

– Angela Constance

She argued that in Scotland nearly 20% of higher education in Scotland is actually provided in the college sector which skewed the UCAS figures Does this count for the difference in the UCAS figures, I asked her?

Ms Constance told me:

"We have to be clear that we made a manifesto commitment that we would introduce a minimum income income guarantee on top of our no tuition fee policy. "Our no tuition fee policy is a fundamental aspect of Scottish education."

– Angela Constance

She said the SNP had "more than delivered" on their manifesto commitments and were now waiting for the interim report of the Widening Access Commission, recently set up by the Scottish government.

It would advise ministers "...about what more we need to do to ensure that every young person has an equal chance to go to University if that is what they wish to do", the education secretary added.